ISL grows as merger gets closer
AFC and FIFA push for single national league
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