ISL grows as merger gets closer

AFC and FIFA push for sin­gle na­tional league

World Soccer - - World Service - JOHN DUER­DEN

When the fourth sea­son of the In­dian Super League (ISL) kicks off in Novem­ber it will her­ald the start of a tran­si­tion from glitzy show­piece to tra­di­tional league set-up. Hav­ing ex­panded from eight to 10 teams, the ISL will now run for a full five months, rather than the pre­vi­ous 10 weeks, and it is no longer viewed as just an ex­cit­ing sideshow to the coun­try’s tra­di­tional top tier I-League.

With the Asian Foot­ball Con­fed­er­a­tion and FIFA want­ing to see just one na­tional league, a merger be­tween the two has been talked about for some time and a new pro­posal will be put for­ward in Novem­ber that could see an 18-team league set up in the near fu­ture.

But what­ever the make-up of any fu­ture In­dian top-flight league, it will most def­i­nitely be run along the lines of the ISL.

The fledg­ling com­pe­ti­tion has al­ready de­vel­oped a glam­orous brand im­age based on high-pro­file own­ers, big-name sign­ings and fa­mous coaches. While the I-League strug­gles with crowds un­der 5,000, at­ten­dances for ISL games have av­er­aged over 20,000, with games tele­vised na­tion­ally and the me­dia tak­ing a keen in­ter­est. The or­gan­is­ers will watch with in­ter­est over the com­ing months to see if the ex­tended cam­paign has any detri­men­tal ef­fect on crowds and view­ing fig­ures.

With the longer sea­son in mind, and the in­creased costs that go with it, many teams have opted not to sign a mar­quee player for the new sea­son. They are also lim­ited to sign­ing eight for­eign play­ers and must field six lo­cals.

There has been a dis­tinct Span­ish flavour to the com­pe­ti­tion in the past, with Atletico De Kolkata win­ning two of the three tour­na­ments so far. How­ever, with the club’s part-own­ers Atletico Madrid sell­ing their 25 per cent share dur­ing the sum­mer, the de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons have been re­named ATK and gone for a more English ap­proach.

In what was the most in­trigu­ing ap­point­ment of the close sea­son, Teddy Sher­ing­ham was brought in as coach of ATK. A Cham­pi­ons League win­ner with Manch­ester United in 1999, this is the 51-year-old’s first man­age­rial job since he left English fourth-tier side Steve­nage last year. But per­haps ATK’s smartest move was to bring in for­mer United trainee Ash­ley West­wood as his as­sis­tant. West­wood was in charge of Ben­galuru when they won the I-League in 2014 and 2016, and his knowl­edge of lo­cal play­ers and the do­mes­tic scene will serve the club well. Lead­ing the way on the pitch will be for­mer Repub­lic of Ire­land striker Rob­bie Keane and ex-Bolton Wan­der­ers keeper Jussi Jaaske­lainen.

In ad­di­tion to Sher­ing­ham, there are two other English coaches in the ISL this term, with for­mer As­ton Villa boss John Gre­gory start­ing a new chal­lenge with Chen­naiyin while Steve Cop­pell swaps Ker­ala Blasters for new­com­ers Jamshed­pur.

In terms of play­ers, the most eye-catch­ing ar­rival comes in the deep south. Ker­ala are the only team to win the ti­tle who are not from Kolkata and they of­ten at­tract crowds of over 50,000. Now that Dim­i­tar Ber­ba­tov is in their ranks there may even be a few more turn­ing up. The Bul­gar­ian is joined by for­mer team-mate Wes Brown, and just to re­in­force the

Manch­ester United con­nec­tion, the team are coached by Rene Meu­len­steen, who worked un­der Alex Fer­gu­son at Old Traf­ford.

Of the two new teams, much of the at­ten­tion will be on Ben­galuru, who have mi­grated from the I-League. East Ben­gal and Mo­hun Ba­gan, the his­toric gi­ants of In­dian foot­ball, were also in talks about switch­ing to the ISL but could not agree a deal in time for this sea­son. At some point they will have to be ac­com­mo­dated.

A suc­cess­ful 2017-18 cam­paign is cru­cial for the ISL. With a lack of fa­mous names com­pared to pre­vi­ous sea­sons, if at­ten­dances and me­dia pro­files come close to the lev­els of pre­vi­ous years it will be very en­cour­ag­ing in­deed. New start...in­com­ing chen­ni­ayin coach John Gre­gory with team owner and Bollywood ac­tor Ab­hishek Bachchan (right) and coowner vinita dani (left)

Sup­port...Ker­ala Blasters have at­tracted crowds of over 50,000

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