More than 35,000 football fans had thronged into Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium on a pleasant December night in 2014 and millions more were glued to their television sets across India to witness Sachin Tendulkar’s team take on Sourav Ganguly’s side. No, this was no mega cricket match; it was the final of the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League (ISL), a contest that was balanced on a knife-edge for more than 90 minutes and seemed destined to enter extra time.
But then, in the final minute of stoppage time, Mohammed Rafique of ATK, then known as Atletico de Kolkata, rose highest to meet a corner and head home the winning goal for Sourav’s enigmatic chargers. ATK had edged past Kerala Blasters to claim the ISL trophy and bring the curtain down on an exhilarating season of football that was designed to transform the beautiful game in India.
More than five years on from that potentially paramount moment, India — a country former FIFA President Sepp Blatter had described as a “sleeping giant” of football — is still rolling in its slumber, incapable of being awakened to change by the promised land of the ISL.
It is no secret that Indians love their football; it is just that they usually don’t love Indian football. Even before the ISL started making waves ahead of its launch in 2014, there was no shortage of passion among Indians for absorbing football and its concomitant commercial offerings. You would do well to stroll across any of the social hotspots in India’s metropolitan cities and not notice any items of merchandise expressing allegiance to the likes of Manchester United or Chelsea. For my part, I have never missed a single minute of footballing action whenever FC Barcelona have taken to the field over the last decade.
So, when the ISL lured football fans like myself — otherwise too occupied by the glamour of European football to bother about the domestic players back home — by bringing in some giants of days gone by, the excitement was palpable. Watching an Alessandro Del Piero strut his stuff in Delhi after dazzling legions of Juventus devotees in Turin was a special sight. When English stalwart David James stood firm in the Kerala goal, it was difficult to dismiss the ISL as a momentary fluke.
After all, world-class talents were finally exhibiting their skills on the pitches of India, alongside the country’s very own. Big names from the likes of Steven Gerrard to Kaka to Ronaldinho were being linked to an ISL move as their prime in Europe neared an end. Unfortunately for the ISL and Indian football, the formula of importing gold dust lost its sheen after the first three years.
Not only did fewer international players (with lesser repute than their predecessors) make it to the ISL after 2016, but even those who came were no longer capable of playing anywhere near their best. The blueprint of establishing a new league’s popularity on the pedigree of footballing icons that had paid such great dividends in the United States of America (through Major League Soccer) soon fizzled out in India as legends realised that heading to the ISL was simply not worth their while.
ISL vs I-League
One of the major issues which the ISL had to resolve soon after it kicked off revolved around receiving legitimacy as the official footballing league of the country. It took three seasons of football before the ISL was recognized by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and allocated a slot in the AFC Cup (the Europa League of Asian club football).
While the ISL continues to eat into the visibility of the I-League — which, till 2014, operated as the only domestic football league in India (to very little success) — the I-League enjoys precedence in terms of official distinction from governing bodies like AFC and FIFA. The tug of war over which competition better represents Indian football has neither boosted the ISL nor made Indian football more engaging as a spectacle. Players are often hamstrung between featuring in the two leagues while organizers have to weave one tournament around the other (especially with the ISL expanding its duration recently) to avoid the congestion of fixtures.
The whole scenario has made for a downright mess and split the not very sizeable Indian footballing fan base down the middle. While old-school supporters refuse to relinquish their fervour for historically enriched teams like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal (operating in the I-League), the new wave of fans — drawn to Indian football by the ISL — disengage completely from the I-League’s heritage.
The only unit able to make a successful transition has been Bengaluru FC, led by Indian captain Sunil Chhetri, who jumped ship from the I-League to the ISL in 2017, even winning the ISL last campaign. But the movement of one team is too little a reward, and perhaps, comes too late as well. When the ISL debuted, the expectation was that it would very soon be merged with the I-League to give Indian football one composite identity. Instead, over the last few years, the ISL’s tussle with the I-League has only served to splinter an already shaky footballing foundation in India.
In March 2015 — a little more than three months after the first season of the ISL concluded — India’s men’s football team slipped to its lowest spot in the FIFA rankings, languishing in the deplorable position of 173rd in the world. In the ISL era, the erratic nature of India’s performances at the international level have been prolonged, sometimes reaching new nadirs, as was the case in the 2018 SAFF Championships, when India lost to the Maldives in the final of an event they had grown accustomed to winning (with seven previous titles).
Not only are India pretty much guaranteed to miss out on the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, brushing shoulders with former exponents of European football has brought Indian players no closer to leaving their imprint on the elite echelons of the sport in Europe’s top leagues.
Players from 110 different nationalities have featured in England’s Premier League (widely regarded as the best league in the world) so far — including footballers from Congo, Sierra Leone, and Pakistan — but till date, no Indian has set foot in a Premier League game. The ISL was supposed to change all that, with its influx of foreign expertise (involving coaches and support staff, too) and incentives for proper infrastructure. But the thrust that had originally propelled the ISL into the spotlight has long been stymied; from the great hope of Indian football the ISL is now just another tournament in India that fans are gradually becoming apathetic towards, instead of concentrating their undivided attention on the Barcelonas and the Real Madrids yet again.
Road to redemption
It speaks volumes of the nature of the ISL’s slump that a six-year-old league needs to carve out a path to redemption. It is evident that the ISL has not been able to do for football what the Indian Premier League (IPL) has done for cricket, and a large part of that comes down to investment- both in terms of time and resources. The commercial and personal involvement that owners show for IPL teams significantly trumps the length their ISL counterparts are willing to go.
Today, the Kolkata Knight Riders typify the Shah Rukh Khan persona, Preity Zinta’s vibrancy resonates in the Kings XI Punjab; but no such identities are forged for any of the ISL teams. Whether or not a franchise should be modelled in the image of its owner is a controversial question, but there is no denying that doing so provides valuable traction; and traction is the one thing the ISL is currently desperate for, having seen its Midas touch gradually evaporate like dew from the surface of grass.
Besides a marketing revamp, the ISL must acquire at least one true game-changer right now- someone like a David Beckham (who put Major League Soccer on the map almost single-handedly) or Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who revitalised the MLS)- who can bring back the fandom that has begun to give up on the increasingly lack-lustre ISL.
The rest — like a turnaround in team India’s fortunes and the resolution of the struggles with the I-League- can follow, but only when the ISL has gone back to the track it was conceived to traverse. In the absence of such regeneration, the pulsating final between Kolkata and Kerala from 2014 will soon be remembered as a false dawn rather than the heralding of the new era Indian football has been craving for.