ISL kicks off, but fanfare opening falls flat as teams fail to inspire

By Samindra Kunti

November 20 – Defending champions ATK and Kerala Blasters kicked off the new Indian Super League season this weekend, but lingering doubts remain about the league’s blueprint. 

The ISL has introduced new rules to commence its 4th edition: franchises no longer require a marquee player and they will have to field a minimum of six Indian players, up from last season’s quota of five. The league will run for four months, double the length of the previous editions, until March 16, and two new franchises have been added to the roster with Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC, two strong domestic football markets.

On Sundays the league matches have been slotted for prime time TV viewing this season. Hero MotoCorp remains the title sponsor. Maruti Suzuki, a leading automobile maker, and DHL have  remained associate sponsors for a third year in a row.

“The ISL has maintained a level of quality by infusing foreign players with Indian players in such a proportion that the game was watchable and attracted Indian fans, who are used to watching high-quality matches in the European leagues,” read a statement from the ISL.

That assertion fell flat after the opening match. After Kochi fans were treated to a glitzy, and mostly kitsch, opening ceremony, ATK and the hosts played out a drab opening game that left much to be desired, technically and tactically. In other results North East United drew goalless with debutants Jamshedpur. Bengaluru toppled Mumbai 2-0 and Goa won away to Chennaiyin FC 2-3.

At first sight it looks as though nothing has profoundly changed in the season that the ISL has de facto become India’s premium league supplanting the old I-League. The winner of this season’s ISL will qualify directly for the AFC Cup, the Asian equivalent of the Europa League.

The new format, the new franchises and the new TV schedule do little to counter the feeling that the ISL is league founded along commercial lines with little incentive to develop the Indian game from the bottom-up. By general estimation, franchises spend just 10% of their budgets on grassroots and youth development.

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