It started as it ended with an Atletico Do Kolkata win. The Indian Super League kicked off on October 12 in front of 65,000 as the Bengal team defeated Mumbai and ended on Saturday with a 95th-minute winner against Kerala Blasters in the championship play-off final. In the ten weeks in between, an average crowd of 26,500 saw games that were of better quality than expected. In as far as that at least, the ISL has been a success. If there is a deeper legacy – and one has been promised – then we will see in time.
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First though, the football. Perhaps it was fitting that the first ever title went to Atletico, the Spanish-influenced club representing the city at the heart of the hotbed of love the subcontinent has for the game. Or perhaps the opposite should have been the case. Perhaps the trophy should have gone to relative virgin territory, like beaten finalist Kerala Blasters – based in the deep south and led by David James. Or perhaps it doesn’t really matter and football was the winner.
This eight-team tournament lasted for just two months with the top four entering the semi-finals of the play-offs. Each of the eight franchises – owned by Bollywood actors, big businesses or European clubs like Kolkata’s Madrid parent, or a combination of all three – hired big name stars to bring in the crowds and the sponsors. Alessandro Del Piero, Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet may be veterans, and in some cases actually retired, but to sign equally famous names who were 10 years younger would take more money than even these franchise owners were able to spend.
The performances were mixed. Elano was the best of them, the former Brazil international scored eight for Chennnaiyin, while former Arsenal left-back Andre Santos was impressive for second place (in the regular league) Goa. The likes of Pires and Del Piero were a little more erratic but then, their profile off the pitch was arguably always going to be more important than their performances on it. The Frenchman certainly took that on board, making global headlines by allegedly receiving a half-time tunnel beating from Kolkata boss Antonio Lopez Habas. The likes of Zico and Peter Reid were in the dugouts, along with Marco Materazzi who played and coached, and were also as media friendly as it was possible to be.
As well as the big foreign stars at each team, and a few lesser known imports, the rest of the squads were made up of Indian players. It was almost a mantra of the ISL that it was formed, at least in part, to give local lads a better class of team-mate to work with, opponent to play against and coach to play under. Indian agents have been able to at least interest overseas clubs by pushing these team-mates of Del Piero and Anelka.
The standard of play has been better than most expected. The big stars are always going to talk up their paymasters’ product but there is genuine pleasure and surprise at how good the football has been. It is perhaps easier to maintain your best when there are only a few weeks to be played but the general consensus is that the standard would not look out of place in a second tier of a major European league. One complaint of Indian football fans who are not fans of Indian football is the perceived lack of quality. The ISL has helped in this regard and the games have been broadcast far and wide by Star Sports.
Soon the domestic players will return to their usual clubs and another litmus test when judging the success of the new league is how it affects the old one. The I-League has been the country’s professional tournament since 2007. It has not exactly taken India by storm but has established itself in the sporting calendar, at least in certain regions of the country – mainly Mumbai, Goa, Kolkata and the north-east. Attendances here are around 5,000 and there is little of the glamour or the media attention that its newer cousin has received. It needs all the help it can get.
“Sprinkling some glamour on the league has not been difficult but making communities and cities care about these new clubs takes time and effort.”
As well as improving the players and increasing the domestic game’s profile, the ISL has claimed that the money that it brings into Indian game will help with facilities, something that is an obvious problem in the I-League in terms of stadiums, training pitches and the rest as David James pointed out to the BBC recently. “They have got to do some heavy investment, the infrastructure is near on non-existent,” said the ex-England goalkeeper. “Training facilities are very, very hard to come by. There is a severe lack of qualified coaches in India. If they get those things right, the potential is massive.”
— Atlético de Kolkata (@atletidekolkata) December 21, 2014
If the ISL can help with all this, then it really will be a start but there are still problems. Sprinkling some glamour on the league has not been difficult but making communities and cities care about these new clubs takes time and effort. Attendances were excellent overall but hid some disappointing figures, especially in Delhi, despite the presence of the biggest name of all in Del Piero, though perhaps it is just the case that the capital is just not a football city. And, the question comes back to what will happen when the I-League starts and poorer clubs can’t get the same attention and attendances. That’s the long-term test as to whether the ISL will be successful for Indian football in general.
For the league itself, the medium term test comes in year three or four when the novelty has worn off. As for the short-term? That test has been passed. For now, the Indian Super League has performed better than expectations on and off the pitch.
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