The 7th Season of the Indian Super League (ISL) is all set to kick off in Goa on 20th November 2020, a single city – a closed door affair in 2020-21 season due to pandemic. A unique season in many ways and at this unprecedented time ISL taking place is itself a wonderful situation and would bring huge relief to football community, especially to players and fans in India.
No doubt, Indian football is gaining brand image and emerging stronger with the start of ISL. If we ask Indian players the impact, they have experienced in the previous 6 seasons of ISL, almost all will have great things to share and the credit goes entirely to ISL and its clubs.
To plan and operate, a big project like ISL in India is not an easy thing, it was possible due to Ms Nita Ambani, the force behind this initiative. Her imprint one can experience in every aspect of the league, from ISL promos to grand opening and closing ceremonies which was a first for Indian football. She has led from the front to provide leadership to the league since the beginning of ISL and she engaged big names from Bollywood, World Football and Cricket to package ISL in India. There may be critics of ISL, but no one can deny the kind of tangible impact ISL has brought to Indian football and one should not forget it is a work in progress.
With FSDL, then IMGR becoming master right holders of Football Federation properties and activities, and the richest company, wealthiest woman and richest man in India puts their weight behind Indian football should be taken as one of the most positive developments of the last decade in Indian football. The launch of the ISL was the result of this partnership between ISL and AIFF and as the 7th season of ISL about to be played in Goa with 11 teams for the first time, the league has attained the progress of 200% in 2020 compared to 2014, the inception year of ISL.
The entry of the two Kolkata giants into Indian Super League for this season is a game changing season for ISL. Mohun Bagan joining hands with ATK and East Bengal teaming with Shree Cements to become SC East Bengal means two century old clubs have the potential to double the commercial value of the league in 2021-22 season itself. The derby match between these two itself has a potential to rake 100cr revenue from the 8th season itself and in a few seasons this derby match in ISL likely to command US$100m broadcasting revenue alone. It is unfortunate that this season the derby will be a closed-door affair due to pandemic and thus the in-stadium fan power of these two giants will be missed in a big way this time.
Overall, fan engagement with ISL clubs are steadily growing and the biggest fan culture movement, we have experienced in ISL till last season was Manjappada, the yellow army made Kerala Blasters FC the power of Kerala and ISL. The supporters of KBFC are getting solidified like never seen in Indian football and the whole stadium environment in Kochi is fast going towards the big games of Europe or South America environment. Not to miss the West Block Blues supporters’ group of Bengaluru FC.
The fan culture in Indian football is emerging stronger with each passing day and the credit for this transformation must go to ISL. Since ISL created this city based franchises the local football fans in these cities got a fresh platform and opportunities to live a life of a passionate fan with the local clubs and now with biggies, the Mariners and Real Power EB group joining the ISL bandwagon means it is going to be a non-stop firework for fans with ISL. No doubt in many ways a redefining season for India’s premier league.
The other uniqueness of the ISL7 is the joining of the global powerhouse football group, the City Football Group (CFG) in ISL by acquiring majority stake in Mumbai City FC. All the eyes will be on MCFC when they take the pitch this season. The football community in India will follow MCFC with all the keenness what City Football Group is going to do in transforming Mumbai City FC with their deep pocket and global footprint in the next few seasons. ISL global footprint and brand value have taken a jump with CFG association with MUFC and this has triggered positivity for other clubs to have a similar global partnership. FC Goa strategic partnership with the Bundesliga outfit RB Leipzig just before the start of the ISL7 in Goa has brought another strength to the power of Goan football, FC Goa.
Not to forget another uniqueness of this season would be FC Goa’s participation in AFC Champions League. FCG outing in AFC CL, the top tier league of Asia would mean Indian football players will have the opportunity to compete among the best in Asia at a club level and this would increase the competitiveness of ISL.
One can’t imagine unless one is part of the management team organising ISL in this pandemic time in Goa with a bio-secure bubble environment. ISL might be one of the rare football leagues in the world to have these long, a 5-months bio bubble top tier league. In India, ISL will be the only league going to operate under a bio bubble condition on this scale and to execute the competition involving 11 teams, match officials, organising staff, etc. with heavy logistics is highly challenging and a war like situation for everyone involved with and it would consume significantly higher resources compared to a normal time.
India’s biggest sporting property, IPL successfully completes the season in UAE is definitively add to motivation to ISL management and learning from there is going to be of great use in Goa.
Players and teams are already experiencing a completely different situation and all those foreign players arrived in Goa to be part of ISL have gone through varied levels of experiences while traveling. A few of them have spent 40 days in quarantine in different countries and experienced a difficult transit system in different airports across the world. It is tough for players to live in a bio bubble environment, but players are one community who will adjust faster than others and display their best while on the pitch from the word go.
If number of covid19 cases continue to decrease in India and likely arrival of vaccine by January 2021 then we might see fans being allowed in the stadiums by authorities starting February 2021, maybe 30% of the stadium capacity to start with and gradually growing depending upon the pandemic situation in India.
The Indian captain, Sunil Chhetri will continue to be the most followed Indian players in the ISL. He is looking in great shape and charged up to be a top performer in the ISL7. The young brigade of Indian players in ISL7 will be greatly inspired by the record goal scorer of Indian football. Overall, players will have to cope up with the bio bubble regulations and lack of game times and a shorter pre-season before the ISL might pose some challenges to players, but teams will find the rhythm, fitness, and game plan to sustain the season without high number of injuries. ISL7 adopting 5 substitution rule will be helpful to teams and teams with a better bench strength will have an advantage to fully exploit substitution rule.
There is an expectation that out of the young players brigade we will witness one or two emerging to take the center stage in their respective teams and establish as a potential star performer for Indian football. Come next season ISL8, 3+1 rule will be fully applicable in ISL, which means there will be a new demand for Indian players and thus younger lots will significantly benefit in near future.
The domination of Spanish players and coaches in ISL7 would be another feature which is a positive development in Indian football. 22 players and 7 coaches are of Spanish origin and the most positive part is, the overall age of foreign players in ISL7 would be significantly lower compared to first few seasons. Due to Asian players quota is ISL7 Australia’s A-League emerged as the favourite destination for many ISL teams to recruit Asian players and of course, the success of Roy Krishna in ISL6 with ATK, former A-League player, made easy for teams to scout players from A-League.
Another area where the global football community will be keeping an eye this season in ISL would be Robbie Fowler, former England star taking up the managerial role with SC East Bengal was a global news and there is a huge expectation from Red and Gold fan brigade that he will take EB to the top of the table in the debut season of ISL itself.
For any coach it will be a challenging scenario due to inadequate preseason training, almost no game time, except those training games in Goa, and other challenges due to pandemic, etc. Thus, teams which will make maximum adjustments and prepared with flexibility will emerge as champions.
However, judging Robbie Fowler or any other coach based on this season’s performance in ISL won’t be fair as none of them have experienced previously to operate in this unique situation. Apart from Liverpool great the other coach who will be attracted maximum attention would be Sergio Lobera, the coach of Mumbai City FC. His controversial exit from FC Goa in the middle of the last season made all the headlines and FCG playing an attractive brand of football was his making.
Whether Lobera can make MCFC play a similar brand of football and emerge as a table topper this season will be one of the focus points of many. The senior most and most successful ISL coach Antonio Lopez Habas will be under maximum pressure this season to retain the title after the merger of Mohun Bagan with ATK, which means ATK-Mohun Bagan will have the support of a few million additional fans and Habas will face a new reality with Kolkata football and likely to end up as a darling of Mohun Bagan fans if he is going to reproduce the on pitch performances of ATK and Mohun Bagan in the last season.
With Sunil Chhetri Bengaluru FC will always remain one of the favourites in the ISL and Carles Cuadrat will improve the shortcomings of last season to make BFC a well-oiled machine under the leadership of Padma Shri Sunil Chhetri. Jamshedpur FC by signing Owen Coyle as a coach is expected to take JFC to best ever finish in ISL after what Owen Coyle miracle work with Chennaiyin FC last season from the bottom of the table to the play-off finals.
Tata’s contribution to Indian football is unmatched till date and with on pitch success Tata management might invest heavily in elite player development and the impact it will have on grassroots structure in the State of Jamshedpur would be unimaginable. Kerala Blasters FC, Odisha FC, Chennaiyin FC, North East United FC and Hyderabad FC all with new head coaches means surprises are in store and it is going to be very entertaining ISL.
The only team in ISL, which will be truly at home this season is FC Goa and it would turn to be a great advantage to the home side if a closed door league turns into an open door league in between the league due to improvement in a pandemic situation. Whatever the situation may be, FC Goa side has built a reputation of playing a fearless attacking brand of football and the new coach Juan Ferrando will be under scrutiny from the first match kick-off itself. The departure of Hugo Boumous and a few others from FCG means team strength would only be known when they take the pitch in ISL7. It will be interesting to see how players will be performing on the pitch without those high energy fans of FCG on the stands.
ISL No. 7 means lucky 7th season and it might happen that with engaging content throughout the ISL and big promotion across all the mediums ISL might hit a record high viewership number and improve tv ratings ISL will establish as a go to property for broadcasters and brands. ISL does have many assets which would command significant print and digital space, but important is how those assets can access by the media. Print media coverage of ISL has a huge scope of improvement and there might be a new media strategy to cover this gap in the new season which we might see.
The new season won’t be any different for Referees, they will continue to be under greater scrutiny and criticism. But most important is to understand Referees are humans, they will make mistakes like players, coaches and management, but the unfortunate part is that we forget to appreciate their good performances and always putting them to greater pressure. Referees must be scrutinised professionally and there is a well laid mechanism to assess and review each performance of Referees’, but coaches must avoid making Referees scapegoats and only official channels should be used to communicate grievances related to Referees.
No doubt with two legendary clubs moving away from I-League and joining ISL have further diminished the value of I-League, but blaming ISL won’t be right as both leagues are structured and managed with two distinct approaches under two different league management. However, the motivation for I-league is there as come 2022-23 season the winner of the I-League will be promoted to ISL and for that to happen teams have to start the build up from this season itself.
No point to have a competitive mindset between two leagues as the league structure is now clearly defined with no ambiguity. The growth of ISL will definitely going to have a ripple effect on the entire league structure of India and more investment will start coming into I-League clubs as the pathway to ISL is going to be through I-League and the league below.
Strategically ISL7 can be a great turning point for ISL as this situation would never happen again in the history of a top league in India where all the teams will be in one location for this long period and this opportunity to be together would help all the team management to come together to discuss the way forward and further strengthen the league in all respect. There are many improvement areas which would require a cohesive approach and the focus should be on how to make ISL the No. 1 league in Asia by 2030.
There are many elements within the club and league, which will go for improvement in the coming seasons and the clubs will adopt best practices of PL or Bundesliga. ISL no doubt will command a few billion-dollar value by 2030 season, but to expect everything as Premier League or Bundesliga clubs so early in the life of a league is not realistic and practical. Clubs in ISL must dedicate a certain percentage of budget in developing infrastructure as early as possible together with a focus on developing elite youth players. Revenue side will only go from strength to strength in the coming seasons and Indian football will derive greater dividend from the power of Indian Super League.
Good luck to all the teams, players, coaches, support staff, fans, management and ISL for the 7th season, may this season turn out to be one of the best seasons for ISL and Indian football.
Long Live Indian Football!