Indian Football: Why ISL's success is not reflecting in India's football?
The Indian Super League has certainly aimed at bringing a revolution in Indian football. But what kind of a revolution is it heading towards?
The Indian Super League, a league full of glamour and charisma kicked off in the year 2014 with eight teams participating in it. The teams, namely, were Atletico de Kolkata, Kerala Blasters FC, NorthEast United FC, Delhi Dynamos FC, Mumbai City FC, FC Goa, Chennaiyin FC and FC Pune City. Similar to the Indian Premier League (cricket), the Indian football audience saw various franchises bidding for the Indian footballers. Most of the Indians were signed on loan by the ISL franchises as the I-League was the first priority back then for the footballers. The first season saw the likes of Luis Garcia, Borja Fernandez, Iain Hume, Marco Materazzi and David James setting foot on the Indian grounds.
The eight-year-old tournament grabbed the attention from audiences as well as was criticised by some. On this date, the league has earned the reputation of the top tier league in Indian football and it provides for the AFC Champions League spot to the winners of the League Winners' Shield. Everything was happening like a cakewalk, but what happened now? The league can unquestionably be called a successful one, but why aren't the signs evident in the national team's performance? The team has been not been convinving enough, and have fallen behind from what they were in 2019.
Well, there are a few points which can be held responsible. Firstly, the structure of the league. As it is officially the top tier league of the country, it is expected that the league will continue for at least 6-7 months, where the teams will be playing around 30-40 games in the league. But unfortunately, the league spans for just 20 matches for each team; only the participants for the playoffs play a few more matches. For the development and consistency of an individual, a longer league is a better option rather than such a short one. Secondly, apart from the Indian Super League, the players of the national team don't take part in any other tournament. Previously, the country witnessed tournaments like Federation Cup, Super Cup and other local leagues, but after the ISL's dominance in the Indian market, these tournaments have gone for a toss. The Super Cup, too, didn't take place last season due to the pandemic and in the local leagues mostly the reserve sides are portrayed.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the number of foreigners fielded on the pitch. The number of overseas players till last season was 7, with 5 players allowed to start. This is one of the major reasons why India still lacks a replacement for Sunil Chhetri who is expected to retire from the national colours after the Asian Cup in 2023. Too much dependence on the foreigners may have benefitted the league and the clubs and improved the quality of the Indian players in the league, but the number of promising players coming in after each season have been reduced. Previously, we used to see dozens of players joining various I-League clubs from the Tata Football Academy. The ISL clubs nowadays field a reserve team in the local leagues/cups which profits the club itself, as they find a few new options for their reserve bench and only a handful make it into the starting eleven that too with very less game-time (in unimportant matches or when a player is not available). The reserve league also took a hit because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and since then it has directly impacted players who were in transition from the reserve to the first team. The situation will definitely improve in the coming years once the effect of the pandemic is reduced.
Lastly, the clubs should give immense focus on their academies. It is true that clubs like FC Goa, Bengaluru FC and Hyderabad FC provide enough effort towards their academies but the other clubs need to focus more on the grassroots, and nurture kids. The Reliance foundation has helped to develop some youngsters who have started showing impact in their teams but with time other clubs also have to prioritize local talent, and nurture younsters.
The structure needs to be changed, which will fortunately happen in the near future. The absence of relegation reduces the motivation for underperforming teams, they do not fight the pressure battles because they know the will be back next year. This is also reflecting in the Indian national camp because the team is failing to perform in clutch games. A league without elimination is void of competition. Qualification from the I-League is necessary. Bringing in more teams is important as the number of matches will also be increased. Leaving players for the national camp ahead of various tournaments is a must. Only then can we see a ray of hope in Indian football as just branding and portrayal of immense professionalism will not be of any help to the national team.
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