ISL: A New Dawn for Indian Football or a Money Making Machine?

The Hero Indian Super League (ISL) is a top-tier football professional football competition in India. It started out as a very well-marketed concept, one that was supposed to mark the beginning of a new era in Indian football. When this project was being discussed around in 2012-13 before the conceptual stage, the very basic idea was to kick start the rather stagnant predicament of Indian football by means of establishing franchise-based clubs and take substantial steps to put the Indian nation on the world footballing map. It began in 2014 and since then, two successful seasons passed by, and fans are eagerly waiting for the third one. But here, one needs to stop and ponder about a few things: Has the ISL truly been a good influence on Indian football and if so, how? Or on the contrary, is it just that: an extremely well-marketed idea that's essentially a money-making business idea?

To start off, the ISL competition is played over 2 months where 8 clubs compete to be crowned as the champions of Indian football. But, are they really the champions of India? The very concept of ISL is borrowed from the intensely popular cricket competition Indian Premier League(IPL), which again, was inspired by the franchise-based systems of the 4 professional sports-leagues in the United States. So, this means that the ISL is a closed-window competition with no relegation or promotion involved. Another aspect is that after playing for 2 months, the top-4 teams engage in Play-Offs like in NFL, MLB or NBA, where even the 4th-placed team can go on to win the competition. These elements go against the very idea of football leagues all over the world and these, to me, defeat the purpose of a league.

Another fact that needs to entertained is that each of the individual club is not really a team in the first place, and as mentioned above, is a franchise. Most of the players are on brought on loan from either the different leagues around the world, or mostly from the I-League clubs, the actual top-tier professional league of Indian football. These players are handed short term, yet lucrative offers to play in the ISL, for about 2 months which honestly speaking, is too short a time for a team to gel up and develop any particular style of play, let alone develop skills of the involved players. This element brings with it another issue. Most of the players brought in are from lesser-known or less-popular leagues of the world; which means they may or may not be earning much in their primary clubs. So, for a lot of players, the ISL is a platform to earn some good money quickly without maybe having to give in one's 100% effort. However it would not be right to blame the players for this as professional sportsmen have a very short shelf-life and they have to make the most of it.

The concept of marquee signing is an integral part of ISL. Players like Roberto Carlos, Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires and Nicolas Anelka have been brought in as marquee signings in the bygone seasons. The theory is that playing with such great players will improve the skills of Indian players. But the big question is how? While great players in their prime, they are the mostly shadows of their former selves now. It is plain naivety to expect them to play in their younger intensity. Many say that these players will guide and nurture the Indian youngsters, but then again, 2 months is too short a time for any of that. The format of ISL itself is very tiring and demanding. Teams play an average of 3 games per week for a period 2 months which drains out the energy and leaves the players completely fatigued, particularly the foreign players. Add to that the high levels of Indian sub-continental humidity and there is a perfect recipe for cramps; a very regular occurrence in the later minutes of every match.

As previously mentioned, the I-League is the official top-tier league in India; hence the winner of ISL cannot represent India in the AFC Champions League or any other continental tournament. The I-League is suspended during ISL as most of the players are loanees from I-League clubs. This mid-season halt affects the I-League teams, thus further affecting their performances in the continental tournaments.

As for the Indian national team, India was ranked 150 by FIFA in the beginning of 2014. By the onset of 2016, the position has further slipped 13 places below to 163. During this period, the Indian team's performance has been very poor losing to Guam, Turkmenistan, Palestine, Oman and Iran, ending the hopes for 2018 FIFA WC Qualifications. There is no sign of improvement; rather, the players themselves look unsettled and unmotivated. Apart from a handful of players like Jeje Lalphekua and Sunil Chettri, the entire Indian squad lacks quality and confidence.

The one aspect where ISL has been very successful is getting the fans to the stadium. Attendances as high as 81,000 have been recorded in ISL matches and the average attendance over the two seasons has been close to 35,000. But this can be largely credited to targeted demographical advertising and glamorous appeal of the marquee signings; thus earning the organisers huge profits.

Indian football lacks infrastructure, scouting, training and the other basics. Rather than starting a different league with new clubs, India needs to focus more on improving the quality of the I-League and its clubs. They should try and get big names to play for I-League clubs so that they connect more with the players, and for a longer duration. The state of infrastructure should be improved, scouting networks in every corner of the country should be started to pick up young talents, of which, there can be no lack of in a country over 1 billion people.

Reliance Foundation Young Champs has started football schools in every corner of the country and also provides scholarships to the extremely talented kids. There are reports that suggest that from 2017, ISL and I-League will merge together. It will be interesting to see how that move shapes up but one has to hope for the best in the sense that the league will be longer and hopefully, more competitive. I agree that 2 years is not enough for ISL to make any impact on Indian football, but I see them not heading in  the correct part and as a football fan, it was my moral duty the ask these questions and bring this matter to everyone’s notice.

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