Four years ago, the Indian Super League introduced itself to the nation with much pomp and show.
When Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra struck her final pose at the end of her opening ceremony performance, the flash lights from thousands of cameras and phones across the Salt Lake stadium was only outshone by the fireworks in the background. As the spectacle was met with raucous applause, the camera panned to the various celebrity owners of the eight franchises and for better or for worse, Indian football would never be the same again.
The inaugural season delivered on its promise of pageantry and grandeur as high-profile businessmen and wealthy corporations pumped money into their respective clubs while actors and cricketers alike capitalised on the investment opportunity.
However, nothing contributed to the glitz and glamour the league was instantly synonymous with than the inclusion of several marquee players, with each franchise obligated to make at least one eye-catching signing.
The idea was to instantly draw audiences and this was a sure shot strategy. The first season attracted one million in stadium attendances. The league stood fourth across the world in terms of average attendance, trailing only the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga.
Why did it work so well? At the turn of the century, a new generation of Indian sports fans were captivated by the Premier League as its frenetic pace and fierce competition graced screens across the country. As European football became more popular in the region, so did their biggest stars while the local leagues were largely overlooked. It’s no wonder then that the first ISL season featured a list of marquee names that read like a who’s who of football royalty from the early to mid-2000s.
From ‘Invincibles’ like Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires to revered Serie A legends Alessandro Del Piero, Marco Materazzi and David Trezeguet, the ISL meant business.
Meanwhile, the active involvement of Bollywood actors captured the attention of even the football illiterate. Acknowledgements of Abhishek Bachchan’s team triumphing over Hrithik Roshan’s would occasionally seep into conversations at the local supermarket otherwise dominated by the escalating costs of onions that month.
However, despite the overwhelming success of the first two seasons, a structure reliant on expensive signings was never going to be sustainable. In the last two campaigns, several clubs have opted against recruiting marquee players with only two franchises doing so in the 2017/18 season. It would seem the big-money assets are now being phased out, but how does that affect the league?
Amoy Ghoshal, chief technical officer of current champions Chennaiyin FC, is unconcerned by the growing trend.
“Although Chennaiyin have had big names in the past, the club has converted unknown players into stars like Stiven Mendoza and Raphael Augusto,” said Ghoshal. “It was crucial for the league to have marquee names in the first two seasons to raise awareness but there have been enough examples of lesser names excelling.”
Players of lower profiles have stepped up. The lesser-known former La Liga striker Coro was the top scorer with 18 goals last season. Bengaluru FC’s Miku, Kalu Uche of Delhi Dynamos and Jamshedpur’s Tiri were also impressive performers.
The absence of marquee names also offers Indian players the opportunity to take centre stage. As the country’s football icon, Sunil Chhetri is never too far from the limelight. The national team’s captain and all-time top scorer was the highest-paid Indian player last season, raking in Dhs 775,972. Chhetri is confident that the absence of marquee players will only benefit Indian footballers both on and off the pitch.
“It has helped Indian players with more game time,” said Chhetri. “You get better only when you put into practice what you train for. I’d like to believe it’s affecting the wages of Indian players in a positive way.”
The lack of marquee players has coincided with a drastic drop in attendances though. Compared to the league’s average attendance of 27,111 in 2015, the 2017/18 campaign could only muster 15,047, conceding a 44.44 per cent decrease.
Delhi Dynamos FC’s media manager, Shikharr Chandra, is candid in his acknowledgement of the challenges that the franchise has faced without the luxury of a marquee name.
“The club has seen the likes of Del Piero and Roberto Carlos so there’s always an expectation from the fans that we might bring a new big face every year,” he admitted. “It is difficult because we keep getting this query on our social media posts, with fans asking to bring in marquee names.
“From both a media and marketing perspective it becomes really easy if you have a marquee name to sell to sponsors while the general audience are also able to relate to his pictures on the hoardings. ”
However, the drop in interest and attendance can’t simply be put down to the lack of marquee players.
Kerala Blasters FC boasts a passionate fanbase that in the past has been starved of national league football having never had a representative in the I-League. The Manjappada Kerala Blasters Fans group has over 280,000 likes on Facebook and was named Fan Club of the Year at the Indian Sports Honours event in 2017.
The ardent supporters were treated to a marquee name in Dimitar Berbatov last season while former Manchester United team-mate Wes Brown was also among their ranks. The club boasted a healthy average attendance of 31,763 last term but it was still a 42.8 per cent drop from the previous campaign’s average of 55,535.
The significant drop in match-going crowds in Kerala has contributed to a large chunk of the decrease across the league. However, while the numbers are alarming, they must be taken with a pinch of salt.
The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi used to boast a capacity of over 60,000 but changes to the stands ahead of the U-17 World Cup last year has now seen it limited to 39,000.
“Team performances also played a major role,” Somu Joseph, a Manjappada Kerala Blasters Fans group administrator, reasoned as the team slumped to an eighth-place finish last year after being runners-up the season before.
Somu believes fans will be just as supportive in the absence of high-profile names though.
“Marquee players add star value and their experience help the team. Even without them, fans are happy if another player performs.”
Meanwhile, in the last two years, Mumbai City FC also moved from the DY Patil Stadium where they enjoyed an average attendance of 28,000 during the inaugural season to the Mumbai Football Arena that holds only 7,960.
To add to the change of venues, shifting time slots last season also impacted falling attendances.
Moving kick-offs from 7pm to 8pm – on request of the league’s broadcasting partner, Star – has not been easy on fans as it means they return home late which is difficult, especially on weeknights. The league is reportedly set to revert to 7pm kick-offs for the new season.
The evidence suggests that there is a drop in interest in the ISL but the numbers don’t tell the whole story and are not worth panicking over just yet. In fact, there is reason to even be optimistic.
If the ISL is the catalyst for change in Indian football, the concept of marquee players was a key element in that chemical reaction. But the novelty has worn off and teams must now produce football of substance and indicative of progress in order to survive.
Clubs have started to invest a lot more in their infrastructure, particularly focusing on youth development.
The I-League, previously India’s undisputed top tier, has been opposed to the ISL since its inception but the two divisions now run parallel to each other under special dispensation from FIFA and the AFC. A proper league structure is certainly in favour of the greater good though and the leagues will eventually have to merge.
All the signs suggest that the ISL is here to stay. Marquee players, having served their purpose, are not.
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