ISL shoots football to popularity

There is life still in Indian football. A struggling national team and a plummeting FIFA world ranking of 171 may suggest otherwise but when one looks at the sheer interest generated by the newly-launched Indian Super League, hope springs again for a sport that is battling to regain its identity in the country.

When the league kicked off on October 12 in Kolkata with eight franchisees featuring several big names well past their prime, there were concerns aplenty. How can teams with waning stars attract fans to the stadiums? Can those stars combine with the less-skilled Indian players to deliver an effective  performance? How will a two-month long festival provide a thrust to Indian football and lift it from the morass it finds itself in?

Not all of those concerns have been addressed by the inaugural edition but by generating a wave of excitement around the country, the ISL has shown that the gloom and negativity that had come to be associated with Indian football can be dispelled if efforts are channelised in the right way. Indeed, the picture looks a lot brighter now than what it was back in October. The standard of matches has been a couple of notches higher than the one witnessed in I-League, the Indian National Football League.

That was to be expected, with each of the franchisee allowed to field seven foreign players. But the welcome surprise was the manner in which the Indian players grabbed the chance to raise their levels. They may not have set the field afire but the confidence gained from the matches is certain to stand them in good stead in future games, thereby benefitting Indian football itself.

The fans too responded positively to the changes, embracing the contests wholeheartedly and setting quite a few records in terms of attendance. The I-League, largely a Bengal-Goa affair till last season, had failed to draw fans to games that used to kick off in hot afternoons.

In contrast, the pan-Indian ISL, with its late start timings, brought in a welcome change. The return of the fan, certainly, was the biggest plus of the league while improved television coverage meant that those watching at home had their share of entertainment.

As the curtains came down on the fiesta, the league also served up lessons aplenty in football promotion for the All India Football Federation, which was almost a silent partner in the show managed by IMG-Reliance and Star Sports. If they pick up the cue, the sleeping giant that is Indian football may well wake up to see a brighter dawn.

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