The elevation of the Indian Super League as the nation’s top tier was probably the worst-kept secret in Indian football. Its status was lost on nobody despite being dressed up initially as a complementary competition to the I-League that would help Indian football rather than be a disruptive influence.
On Sunday, the ISL will finally begin life as the official top division, replacing the I-League, following the recommendations proposed by the AIFF and AFC early this week. The coveted AFC Champions League slot, which was until now reserved for the winner of the I-League, will go to the ISL league-stage winner.
The question now is whether the ISL will deliver? Carles Cuadrat, coach of Bengaluru FC, the defending ISL champion, felt it will. “I am very glad with the decision,” he said.
“Super League is the one that has increased the quality and bettered standards. It is making players more competitive. All the National team players are coming from there. I have all the respect for the I-League clubs. We have also played in I-League before. But times change and a new era is coming.”
Rohit Ramesh, owner of the reigning I-League champion Chennai City FC, though, is circumspect, and said that the I-League clubs have been left short-changed, especially financially. “It’s a start and a step is being attempted, but really not sure how seriously the recommendations will be taken,” he said. “This is not the first time such moves have been proposed and not much came out of it.”
“Now, without even going into whether the decision is right or wrong, I feel this should have been done at the end of last season.
“We won the I-league and we had to ensure that we were well-equipped to defend the title. So we gave long-term contracts to certain players, invested heavily on local talent and extended the foreigners’ stay and now it has all come to nothing.”
There is also a question mark over the overall health of the ISL itself.
Compared to the first two seasons, stadium attendances have halved (from about 26,000 in 2014 and 2015 to 13,000 in 2018). FC Pune City has shut shop and will be replaced by Hyderabad FC, while Delhi Dynamos has moved to a new base and will be called Odisha FC.
“It’s about how sustainable it is going to be,” said Rohit. “Not just the structure but the health of the clubs. And we don’t want the roadmap to be changed again, say, two years down the line. To me it just seems like a 50-50 chance that the roadmap will suffice.
“How Indian football is going to look is a long shot.”
The other teething trouble is the ISL’s duration. With a maximum of just 21 matches, players spend more time in a year off the pitch than on it. India’s below-average performance against Bangladesh in the World Cup qualifier was widely attributed to this lack of matches.
But it is a situation which is not expected to be corrected till 2024-25 when the full-fledged league is supposed to take effect.
“It has a negative impact on the Indian football,” said Eugeneson Lyngdoh, BFC midfielder with 15 India caps.
“Against Bangladesh we were a long way off. If we had had a longer season, the team would have been match-fit. Hopefully, this will change in the coming seasons.”
There is a lot the ISL has to get right if it has to become the booster dose it was once envisaged as.