Indian Super League: It's time to deliver

After months of administrative confusion, finger pointing, social media frenzy and the expected overhaul of the Indian football structure, the new Indian Super League season is set to kick off. This time, as the undisputed top division in the country.

As long as this winding journey to the summit of Indian football structure was, it's still only the beginning. After wresting the top division status, the onus is now on the league to take Indian football forward. To succeed where its predecessors - the I-League and the National Football League before - failed and supersede the old guard is where they struck gold. 

After the tumultuous handful of years, that much is expected.

The ISL has done well to increase the mainstream presence of Indian football. They've also done a great job in marketing and promoting the league, sometimes at the expense of others. But there remain wrinkles that need to be ironed out.

Most importantly, sustainability of clubs. 

The ISL was touted to be resistant to the effects of the well-known demon in Indian football - economics - because of its financial muscle but with two franchises moving cities due to financial issues, albeit of different degrees and concerns, there is an argument to be made that the exorcism is far from successful.

Pune City FC, always fighting an uphill battle, as the history shows in the city, and Delhi Dynamos are now Hyderabad FC and Odisha FC respectively. 

The Odisha experiment has been a success in hockey - a sport that has a rich history in the state - but it remains to be seen how they embrace the beautiful game. The hype of a new team should pique the fans' interest to stop by the stadium in the early rounds but the challenges lies in ensuring they keep coming back.

Hyderabad, on the other hand, is seeped with a rich history in football having produced international players like Shabbir Ali, Syed Abdul Rahim and Peter Thangaraj to name a few. A top division club could just be the boost the football culture needs. To capitalise on it is the key.

Now bestowed with the AFC Champions League playoff berth, it’s still unclear if the spot goes to the winner or to the league table toppers? At the time of writing, two days before the start of the league, even the clubs are in the dark. 

If it were to maintain status quo, there is of course the likelihood of the league losing steam towards the latter half of the season when the fates of the teams look more of less decided one way or another. If finishing in top four is confirmed, the teams can take their foot off the gas and prepare for the playoffs while at the other end of the spectrum, with no relegation to worry about, the bottom teams will be better served looking towards next season than making ‘Hail Mary’ attempts.

There is also the case of the five foreign-player rule. With the AFC standards being four foreigners (3+1 Asian player), perhaps it would be more prudent to stick to the same. With the recent performances of the national team, especially in the final third, the blatant fact is that Sunil Chhetri, at 35 years young, remains the only reliable source of goals. Game time for Indian players, especially along the spine, is paramount.

It’s hardly been smooth sailing for the clubs either, especially with the extended off season which also included a tournament being scrapped at the last minute. Bengaluru FC, the defending champions, had concerns over playing in their own backyard until less than two weeks before the start of the season. 

As the ball rolls on at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi on Sunday to mark the start of yet another season, it’s clear that ISL - no longer a booster tournament, a well produced alternative or even a rival league running parallel - would have to deliver as the first division tournament.

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