It has not been a smooth ride for domestic football since the emergence of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014.
The disruptor, according to All India Football Federation president Praful Patel, has got new investors and fatter pay cheques for some players but has also led to reduction in employment opportunities for many footballers.
That was because the ISL would precede the I-League — still the country’s most important competition even though it offers less prize-money and isn’t marketed and televised as well as the franchise-based competition — and a number of Indian players would play in both.
This season things have changed. The bigger and longer ISL 2017/18 will run simultaneously with the I-League for four months. With Star Sports, an ISL stakeholder, being the official broadcaster for both leagues, the franchise-based competition has a more viewer-friendly and player-friendly kick-off timings.
The ISL received a shot in the arm when two-time I-League champions Bengaluru FC jumped ship. It gave the ISL one of the more marketable brands in domestic football. They were joined by new team Jamshedpur FC, owned by the Tata Group which has had a long association with football with the Tata Football Academy (TFA) being their marquee product thus far.
The cherry on top is a spot in the 2019 AFC Cup qualification rounds for ISL winners. Previously reserved for the Federation Cup champions, this was the Asian football governing body’s way of recognising the league that is the brainchild of the AIFF’s commercial partners.
On field matters
As has been the case over the past three years, ISL4 will see most teams making wholesale changes. Champions ATK have decided that the Spanish inputs that fetched them two titles needed a re-look and opted for a British feel. Among the eight franchises that played the first three seasons, only Mumbai City FC have retained their coach.
Bengaluru FC go in with probably the most settled line-up and coaching staff and the fact that they have played in the AFC Cup this term should help them settle down earlier. They lost Eugeneson Lyngdoh to ATK but recruited Gurpreet Singh and spent Rs. 6.01 crore in the players’ draft. FC Pune City’s spending of Rs. 3.63 crore was the lowest the draft.
FC Pune City and Kerala Blasters have the strongest squads on paper but the rest too have enough in their arsenal to go the distance. And because the league will be longer, teams have mostly opted for younger imports.
Indian coaches will continue to play second fiddle due to the marquee manager rule. Even Derrick Pereira, one of the most experienced among Indian coaches currently active, will assist a much younger and far lesser experienced Spaniard Sergio Lobera at FC Goa.
The biggest talking point of the ISL has been its unpredictability in terms of results. This is, of course, aided by the short-term format. “The difference between the teams is very narrow,” Jamshedpur FC coach Steve Coppell said.
That is likely to continue because of the near-complete overhaul of all the squads. But with 10 competitive squads vying for four play-off spots, this season should provide its own thrills and spills.