ISL: New season offers new hopes

With two new teams and more focus on Indian players, exciting action is in prospect

ISL: New season offers new hopes

It has been quite a year for Indian football. The national team qualified for the AFC Asian Cup after a gap of six years, India successfully hosted their first-ever FIFA event, the U-17 World Cup, and all this happened while the future of the domestic game still remained uncertain.

The tussle between I-League and the Indian Super League had dominated the debate over the last three years but with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) supporting it to the hilt, it is the latter that has emerged the winner. Featuring new teams and promising more excitement, the fourth edition of the event will thus begin on Friday, hoping to write a different script.

Kolkata's ATK, the defending champions, will kick off the proceedings in Kochi when they take on Kerala Blasters at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Unlike in the past, it will be a five-month affair running up to March next year, and though not official yet, it is considered as the top-tier league in the country. This, after the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) gave its seal of approval and allowed the one AFC Cup slot available to India to the ISL winner.

That was a body blow to the I-League clubs but there are many in the Indian football fraternity welcoming the move. "I think the move is a good one," said Armando Colaco, under whom Dempo SC  became the first Indian club to reach the AFC Cup semifinal in 2008.

"In the past,  this was just a league with a lot of money in it. But now the AFC Cup slot is something the teams can aspire for. This should improve the quality and make it more competitive," he felt.

The league will also see two new teams -  the TATA Group-backed Jamshedpur FC and the highly successful Bengaluru FC - among the ten teams vying for top honours. For Bengaluru, a team that entertained many during their time in the I-League, it is a logical step forward. "This is the best thing to do," Mandar Tamhane, the chief technical officer at the club, had said on being inducted into the ISL early this year.  

"With the AFC giving its approval and the AFC Cup slot up for grabs, we stand nothing to lose. Most of the top players play there and the competition is on a higher level."

Often criticised as a money-spinning affair, the ISL is slowly taking steps towards being what it promised to  be - a platform for Indian players to develop. This year, the  league has done away with the requirement of a marquee player and has ensured the foreign player limit has been restricted to eight with just five allowed on the field at any given point.

Surprisingly, coaches who relied heavily on their foreign recruits to deliver in the past too back this move. "I think it's a good decision to have six Indians on the pitch at all times and it means Indians getting more chances to play and show their skills," said Teddy Sheringham, a Premier League winner with Manchester United who is at the helm of ATK this season, at the ISL Media Day this week.

Chennaiyin FC's head coach John Gregory stated that getting away with the marquee player rule has helped his team to build a side around the Indian players.  

"We don't have a marquee signing this year but you will see that we have invested our money in young Indians who will not just come on for 10 minutes but will form an integral part of my squad this season," he said.

With the focus firmly on ISL, it could well mark the beginning of the end for I-League.

The fixtures for the league were released 12 days prior to the opening match and the teams, that include Aizawl FC, a team that gave Indian football one of the most beautiful stories in its recent history, will be plying their trade in the shadows, with ISL set to hog the spotlight.

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