On Sunday, 12th October, 2014, at the Salt Lake Stadium, Atletico de Kolkata kicked off against Mumbai City FC in front of a packed crowd. It would be the n’th time the iconic stadium was hosting a ‘big’ match, so to say. The fans were buzzing with excitement, there was a sense of anticipation and enthusiasm, some even came with a vested interest of raising doubts, because for the first time, they were witnessing a franchise-based league — the Indian Super League (ISL) was upon us.
Almost six years down the line, where exactly are we standing?
“I think the ISL has helped us Indian footballers immensely, there’s no doubt about that,” former Kerala Blasters star Sandesh Jhingan tells this reporter in a telephonic conversation.
Considered as one of the best centre back in recent times, the 26-year-old, whose career took flight only after he joined Blasters in the inaugural season of the ISL, admitted how the league has changed it all round within a few years. According to him, the exposure the Indian players got was unprecedented, something which was a major boost for Indian football.
“First thing, the major thing, is the exposure we got by playing with and against top players. From my very first season, I got to spend a lot of time around world class footballers who have played at the highest level, which is the best way to learn. From David James to Aaron Hughes, Wes Brown, (Dimitar) Berbatov… everyone who came, I am of course missing some names… when you are around them through the day you can see how a world class player handles himself on and off the pitch.
“And when you play against them, whether it’s training or games, (Alessandro) Del Piero, (Nicolas) Anelka, Miku, Ferran Corominas all the players, the very prospect is exciting for any youngster out there to prove himself,” he says.
“I am a firm believer that if you want to improve yourself, you have to play outside your comfort zone, you have to play at the highest level against top opponents, that’s when you get to know your real potential. When you play against these players and do well, that gives you a lot of confidence. And I think this has helped me a lot when I was able to do well, I felt, ‘Yes, I also have it in me’,” Jhingan explains.
“One thing that I always felt before 2013-14 was that no one cared about Indian football. Apart from a handful, no one really knew Indian football. Now, I see that people are taking an active interest in football. So the ISL has popularised the game in the country. At the end of the day, you have to accept that the league has helped Indian football, it has helped the national team and now there are so many people turning up for matches,” he adds.
Up and coming national team star Anirudh Thapa voices similar thoughts when asked how the ISL has helped him establish himself in Indian football. The 22-year-old who joined Chennaiyin FC directly from AIFF’s youth setup, has proven himself to be one of the most promising talents in the country.
“ISL has played a huge role in my career, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of this revolution in Indian football,” he says. “The league has given me opportunities to work with some of the best coaches, a more professional attitude towards the game and, of course, an opportunity to play and learn alongside some of the world’s best in the game.”
“I think the ISL has revolutionised Indian Football for the upcoming generations. The league has come up with a hope for young players to make a career in football. It has also provided the national team with a number of excellent players in the recent years. Precisely I think, the league has made it easy for players from all walks of life to dream of playing for the national team, one day.”
A prime example of a young player using the ISL as a platform to make dreams turn into reality is Sumit Rathi. The teenager broke through last season, helping ATK FC to their third title. Bold, unflustered, composed — the young defender personified all three adjectives as he put on a show for the Kolkata-based team.
“I don’t see ISL just as a platform. For me it is the platform to fulfil your dreams. After playing here, it becomes your belief that you can do everything, it gives you confidence that you can play for any country at any level with any quality player. For a young player, playing with an experienced player helps a lot. You can pick up new techniques from top players,” the 18-year-old says.
“The football atmosphere we get here is everything that a professional football player should get, you learn how to play under pressure when your team’s fans have high expectations. I think it’s a great platform to prove that you can play for your country.”
“Playing at this level and against experienced players, where at every moment you have to face very good strikers, you have to first be mentally strong as well as prepared to deal with any challenge. I benefited a lot because there were very good strikers in my team, there were experienced strikers, so I have to face them in every training session and I have learned a lot from them,” Rathi adds.
Since the ISL’s advent, the league has emerged from being just a cash-rich tournament to being recognised as the top flight in Indian football. Plans are in motion to grow the quality of Indian football and advice is being heeded to.
“The way we are going is the right direction. I think everyone is aware that we need to play more matches, we need to get more teams involved in the league and expand it and that is how it is being planned,” says Jhingan.
“In future, I would like to see teams coming from all across the country — Rajasthan, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, from everywhere. We have such talent in our country, having an ISL team from each region would be a massive thing. 5 years down the line, we all dream of having a 20-team league which will run for 9-10 months, which I think eventually will happen. Although it’s not easy, I understand, but everyone is working towards it and I am sure we will get there. We will soon be among the heavyweights in Asian football, competing for titles in the AFC Champions League, it will be a familiar sight. For now, we have to keep working hard and be ready for it,” he concluded.