Indian Super League: A Season in Review

Atletico De Kolkata, ISL Champions
Atletico De Kolkata, ISL Champions

Atletico De Kolkata, ISL Champions

This is the first time I’ve sat down to write anything about the Indian Super League after that fateful ISL Final. That final was the culmination of Atletico De Kolkata’s topsy-turvy season where they started like a house on fire but ended in an as underwhelming manner as a biryani made for the international crowd.

Their performance in the league and knockout phases, both could be seen as flawed in one way and resilient in another. The winner of the whole affair… no it’s not football as most pundits like to say but instead us football fans.

Who would’ve thought that Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Borussia Dortmund (although their fan base may be dwindling rapidly after recent performances) in India would finally get to see good quality football in their own cities?

But, that’s exactly what’s happened. Let bitter people (some from mainstream media and some former players) denigrate the Indian Super League (ISL) as much as they want to. For me, the ISL was a huge success and will remain so unless the organisers really bungle the next instalment of the great tournament. This is my review of a tournament that I have no qualms saying was a tremendous success.

Reviewing Indian Super League, it’s Performance, And Its Format

So, how did the Indian Super League perform in its inaugural season? There were good and bad both. The good, without a doubt for me, was the way the people of our great country took to the Indian Super League like a long lost child come back after getting lost in the stereotypical Kumbh Mela.

I love the fact that a lot of the people following the Indian Super League were people who had no affinity for football before. I love it even more that people who followed more high profile leagues from Europe all their lives chose to reward their love to our own domestic league.

I especially love the fact that barring few teething troubles such as lights going out and poor parking provisions at venues the organisers did a brilliant job with an event. If you consider the fact that the initial expectations from the Indian Super League weren’t anywhere near the popularity it managed to achieve, it is an even greater achievement from the organisers.

The Great Indian Super League

The Great Indian Super League

The quality of football, itself, was comparable to the second tier leagues of the footballing nations of Europe and South America. Our champions Atletico De Kolkata may get taken apart by the bigwigs of the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga but I have a feeling that they would give the level two teams a run for their money. Heck, our flair child FC Goa was more entertaining and effective attacking wise than many European clubs. I’m looking at the football team from the Middle Earth of Stoke.

Our Indian Super League teams even managed to draw more crowds than most leagues of the world. In fact, only the English Premier League and the Bundesliga are more watched as of now. That was only because some of our stadiums are smaller than the smallest stadiums on other continents.

I’ll give you a prediction. You give our teams bigger stadiums to fill and I promise you they’ll fill it! Watch out UK and Germany, Indian football has been resuscitated and is coming after you next!

The format is the only thing I have a bone to pick with. I like the fact that we have a combination of league and knockout because that is what is needed in a country like India. The Indian Super League is nascent in nature and needs its popularity and entertainment to be boosted. If we were to only use the league format, I think the league wouldn’t be as popular as it was. The knockout phase adds a certain spice to the whole meal for our uninitiated countrymen.

At the same time, I don’t like the fact that we have a 1st vs. 4th and 2nd vs. 3rd format. I believe we would be better off if we drew lots for who will play who. I know that the Major League Soccer uses this playoff system but even there I don’t approve of it. You might say that when we have more teams, this is something that will cease to matter but I don’t agree entirely.

What’s the point of making the leaders play the lowest qualifying team? I say, we draw lots because that will add another level of excitement as fans will start to speculate who their teams will play in the next round. Imagine not knowing who your favourite Indian Super League team will play in the knockouts. Doesn’t that send a tingle down your spine as you speculate whether you’ll meet the in-form team or the pushovers? Does to me which is why I think it’ll be good for the common football fan.

Reviewing Indian Super League Players, Indian and Foreign

Ahh, the Indian Super League players, did they perform? Did the foreign stars do justice to their legends? Did our Indian players make the step up? Could our stars match the best geriatrics legends that the world had to offer? Is the concept of ISL marquee player good for our country? Interesting questions and the answers are not black and white.

The quality of football in the Indian Super League was better than what many and I myself had expected. In some games, the quality of football was breath-taking while in others it was poor. A large percentage of the latter could be attributed to Atletico De Kolkata but they won so they justified it all with the big T.

What about the ISL marquee players from abroad? Again, some of them showed their capabilities while others fell flat on their faces. However, it wasn’t the stars we expected to do well who did well. It were the unfancied stars that did it.

Elano, Golden Boot Winner

Elano, Golden Boot Winner

Elano lit up the league but he relied on set pieces a lot which isn’t something that requires a lot of stamina. Luis Garcia did it somewhat through his passing but couldn’t step up in terms of assists and goals. David James really did it but he was another who didn’t rely on his fitness because he wasn’t an outfield player.

The Anelkas, the Trezeguets, the Ljungbergs, the Del Pierros, and I’m sorry to add the Pires are the ones that couldn’t do it. Did I leave someone out? Well, you can add them to the last group because if they weren’t memorable then they didn’t do it.

Best Foreign Player 11 of ISL

Best Foreign Player 11 of ISL

Apart from the ISL marquee players, there were other foreigners in the Indian Super League too. The ones that stood out for me were (in no particular order) Apoula Edel, Josemi, Fikru Lemessa, Bernard Mendy, Bruno Pelissari, Stiven Mendoza, Gustavo Dos Santos, Andre Santos, Zohib Amiri, Bruno Pinheiro, Iain Hume, Colin Falvey, Stephen Pearson, Pavel Cmovs, and Jan Stohanzl.

My best 11 from this lot is in image. In honour of the finalists, theirs are the colours I have chosen.

The best part of the Indian Super League was the Indian players. They really turned on the magic if you ask me. I’m not going to talk about the players who never made it onto the pitch as so many others have chosen to do. I’d rather be positive and talk about those that merited a spot in their teams and showed their merits in grand style.

The pick of the lot for me were Romeo Fernandes, Narayan Das, Sandesh Jhingan, and of course Arnab Mondal. Romeo is a star in the making and he didn’t only show it with his goals and assists but also with the skills that don’t get counted. He passed well, ran well, and even tackled well. Das, Jhingan, and Mondal are all defenders who were like walls for their teams.

There’s news that Mondal may even get picked by Atletico De Madrid albeit only for their B team. It’s still a step up for the 25 year old and I wish him all the best. I hope he climbs up the ladder, faces Messi, and shows how good Indian defenders are by nullifying him left, right, and centre. That’s a nice dream isn’t it?

Best Indian Player 11 of ISL

Best Indian Player 11 of ISL

While these were the standout performers for me, there were others who deserve credit for standing tall too. These were (again in no particular order) Dhanachandra Singh, Balwant Singh, Debabrata Roy, Bikramjit Singh, Mandar Rao Desai, Sandip Nandy, Rehenesh TP, and Durga Boro. (If you feel I have left our some players then let me hear it in the comments section)

Now, I know that my lists lack players from FC Pune City and Northeast United FC but that’s only because those two teams didn’t have any standout performers for me. They were both well drilled teams that played as a team. Give them a star and they may even surprise us all next season.

Reviewing Indian Super League Fans

They said it best!

They said it best!

You can’t fault the Indian fans for showing heart. They truly know how to cheer even if they can’t appreciate the game. There were many instances where I heard the fans cheering for no rhyme or reason at all.

It doesn’t matter though because at the end of the day the fact that they cheered is more than enough. The understanding of the game and the resultant arguments with best buddies will come later.

Some of the stadiums truly showed the kind of fan following any sport in the country can generate. Examples of great stadiums and great fans include the champions Atletico De Kolkata, the favourites Chennaiyin FC, the team with heart Kerala Blasters FC, the down but not out Mumbai City FC, and even the outlying Northeast United FC.

Delhi Dynamos FC fans can learn a thing or two from the fans of those teams. Delhi Dynamos FC’s stadium sorely needed some good support.

Reviewing Mainstream Media

This is where I have a problem. We have a well-developed and cash rich mainstream media. It is because of this reason that I find it surprising that the big channels and newspapers couldn’t find a good football expert to write and report for them. It was a pity reading some of the reports that our media churned out. They were poorly researched, lacked insight, and were depressingly drab.

Now, I am not saying that I want something like the overzealous media of England but we could do with some passionate and hard-hitting journalists who actually know what they’re spouting. Even the Indian Super League website’s reports were poor when compared to European media. I guess they’re learning too. Hope they can buck up their part in the big scheme of things because the media is actually responsible for creation a lot of passion amongst the populace.

Indian Super League and I-League to Merge

Kushal Das, AIFF
Kushal Das, AIFF

Kushal Das, AIFF

A week back, Arsene Wenger compared football to virus. In the same post, I had predicted that the only foot forward for Indian football is for the Indian Super League to merge with the I-League.

I said, “One way that I can see is that these teams get incorporated into the ISL and the ISL gets expanded to a full season with complete FIFA approval.”

It seems that the lady luck smiled on me and my prediction is going to come true, albeit in the next five years*. The revelation came by way of Reuter’s article on an interview of an Indian FA official**.

AIFF Reveals Good News

The official, one Kushal Das, the General Secretary of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) explained in clear terms that in the next five years the two rival leagues will merge to make one complete league with anything between 14 to 16 teams. His exact quotes were:

Probably 14-16 teams pan-India going on for seven to eight months. That’s the vision…

He seemed to be a forward looking official who was more interested in the sports then furthering his own cause, kind of a rarity amongst Indian officials connected to sports. He believes that the purpose of the I-League and the Indian Super League is to simply further the development of Indian football. Hear! Hear! I say!

A Good Step Forward for Indian Super League

Again he made no bones about it and was as explicit as anyone can be about what he’s talking about.

The ISL and I-League are a means to an end. The end is the development of Indian football.

It’s going to be one of the most crucial moves for Indian football. The first one was, you guessed it, the conception and successful completion of ISL which is on track. I believe the fact that the average attendance of the Indian Super League is miles ahead of the I-League is a distinct hint that the idea has been successful.

While the average match attendance has varied, it has hovered in the region of 25,000. This is in stark contrast to the I-League, which has a paltry average match attendance of about 12,000 to 15,000.

All India Football Federation

All India Football Federation

What’s worse for the I-League is that a large chunk of that average attendance comes from the Bengal derbies between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. How much crowd do these derbies draw? Why in the range of 100,000!

So, you can essentially bring down I-League’s average attendance to about 10,000. This means that the Indian Super League has drawn 2.5 times more people than I-League. If that’s not an argument for merging the two leagues, nothing will float your boat.

The biggest concern for the AIFF, as of now, will be making the combined competition profitable. Das says that it will take about 6 to 7 years for that to happen. I think the Indian public may just surprise them. Between television rights, match attendances, private investment, and merchandise, I do think that the league will become profitable much earlier than the projected timelines.

Expect Improvement In Quality Of Football

Indian Super League

Indian Super League

Have a thought for the quality of football. The quality of football in the Indian Super League has been generally good even though it leans towards the defensive side a little.

But, defence is as much a part of football as attack. If you don’t like that side of the game, my honest suggestion is to give it a little more time and you will appreciate the tactics too.

I, myself, enjoy goals as much as any other normal bloke but can appreciate defence as well. After all, I doubt there’s an Arsenal fan in the world who doesn’t know the value of good defence.

It’s almost a part of the induction procedure for supporting that team. I’ve always felt that Arsenal fans were a little sadomasochistic anyways with the way the team’s defence has been performing of late. In any case, I’ve deviated.

I-League

I-League

My point was that Indian Super League has entertained even though the players haven’t had time to gel in and even though fatigue has affected the quality.

Think what will happen when the same teams get to practice together for 8 months and get enough rest between their games. The quality will shoot up!

Downside Could Relate To ISL Marquee Players

ISL Marquee Players

ISL Marquee Players

Unfortunately, I see a downside to this plan too. This is the fact that our teams may have trouble luring the pedigree of players that we have right now. Right now, all the high profile stars we have probably came in thinking of playing hard for 2 to 3 months and then going away.

What happens when our teams approach a guy to play for 8 months? That’s a long commitment. It’s a minor problem that I’m sure some carefully printed photos of Gandhi on a rectangular piece of paper would not solve. Don’t let my penchant for the dark side of the moon affect you. For now, Indian football is on the up!

*Yes, I am blowing my own trumpet but that’s why one owns a trumpet, is it not? You own a musical instrument, so you play it. What’s the point of having a trumpet if you’re not gonna bother the neighbours with it? Seriously though, I am kind of ecstatic that I could predict something so crucial and so close to my heart. It’ll be fun watching these matches all year round. Wouldn’t you say? I’ll keep you company, if you’re worried.

**You can read the original article here.

Mendoza Out; But Look Who the Replacement Is!

Chennaiyin FC were rocked by the news of John Stiven Mendoza Valencia’s injury but immediately after began rocking when they found out that the legendary Alessandro Nesta will be his replacement. In the world of replacements, I doubt there’s any better.

Alessandro Nesta The Legend

Alessandro Nesta, Chennaiyin FC

Namaste, Senore Nesta, Welcome to India

Alessandro Nesta holds the kind of reputation in Italy that only Sir Sachin enjoys in our country and the Indian Super League is better for his arrival. If you thought Chennaiyin FC’s defence was good till now with people like Marco Materazzi, Bernard Mendy, and Mikael Silvestre, imagine what it’ll be like now with one of the biggest ambassadors of a good defence joins them.

Wikipedia says that Alessandro Nesta is “widely considered to be one of the best centre backs of his time”.

If that’s not enough for you and you are a complete football teetotaller then consider the fact that Alessandro Nesta is a World Cup Winner (2006) and also a four time Serie A Defender of the Year – that’s in a country that has an assembly line of high quality defenders.

He is also a UEFA Champions League Winner (the biggest championship in Europe). What you can be sure about that he had the pedigree to be included in the ever growing cluster of ISL Marquee Players in India.

Alessandro Nesta can be considered to be the one man that made a drab position in football artistic and stylish. Defenders have never been revered the way strikers have been but while Alessandro Nesta was at his peak, there were plenty of kids who wanted to become central defenders.

Alessandro Nesta was probably roped in by his countryman Materazzi but what made it easier was that he was nearby in the global scheme of things. Nesta is currently in Bangkok where he will be playing in the Global Legends Series. Expect him to join Chennaiyin FC from the first week of December with December 5th being touted as the possible date.

But Which Position Will He Play?

Stiven Mendoza, Chennaiyin FC

Sad to see you go…

The tacticians amongst you must be wondering where Alessandro Nesta will play especially since Chennaiyin FC has been employing the 3 centre back formation with Silvestre, Mendy, and Gouramangi Singh in the centre of defence and Materazzi as the defensive midfielder.

You can rest assured that Gouramangi Singh, who is injured anyways, will be replaced by Alessandro Nesta in what will be a like for like change.

Mendoza, however, will still be missed by Chennaiyin FC as he was the one who gave them pace. Still, it shouldn’t bother them so much because in the last two games his absence didn’t seem to affect them so much. He could be replaced by a number of players with the foremost being Bruno Augusto Pelissari de Lima, especially once Elano comes back into the fold.

If Atletico De Kolkata was worried about Chennaiyin FC’s challenge till now then it’s certain that they’ll be quaking in their boots at the mention of Alessandro Nesta…

…and the Indian stock in world football rises ever higher. Forward and upward!

FC Goa vs. Kerala Blasters FC: League’s Best Attacking Team Needs a Good Showing

Robert Pires and FC Goa will look to continue their resurgence under Zico and his new coaching team when they take on Kerala Blasters FC in their home ground in the evening today. Both teams are on a high from their last outings where FC Goa beat the then 3rd position team FC Pune City while Kerala Blasters FC beat the then league leaders Atletico De Kolkata.

Will FC Goa’s Rise from the Ashes Continue?

FC Goa vs. Kerala Blasters FC

FC Goa vs. Kerala Blasters FC

However, I still believe that the momentum is more with FC Goa who have essentially emulated the mythical creature Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Not only have they as a team risen from their charcoal fuelled slumber but each and every player in their team has his own story of revival. Everyone from Mandar Rao Desai and Robert Pires to Andre Santos and Tolgay Ozbey has had a sudden turnaround in performance.

While you may say that even when FC Goa were bottom of the league they were the most attacking team in the league, you need to see that toothless and brainless attacking doesn’t achieve much. Besides, if they were such good attackers, why didn’t they score a boatful of goals?

However, what they do have is the potential for goals but this will have to be measured up against David James and his extraordinary skill. Atletico De Kolkata had trouble getting around David James and I see FC Goa facing the same problem. Still, I expect them to break through at least once.

Can Kerala Blasters FC Score the Goals that will Make a Difference?

Thus, it all hinges on whether Kerala Blasters FC can score goals against FC Goa. Considering the fact that they’re one of the least prolific teams in the league, this may not be likely. At the same time, FC Goa’s defence isn’t entirely fool proof. It all may boil down to mistakes from FC Goa’s defence and how well Youness Bengelloun and Gregory Arnolin play. Moreover, Bengelloun may even not play this game.

Everything points to a very interesting tactical battle between the two teams. If FC Goa can win then they’ll fortify their position in the top 4 of the league and even supersede Kerala Blasters by the virtue of goal difference. If Kerala Blasters FC can get a win then they’ll topple Atletico De Kolkata from the 2nd position. However, Atletico De Kolkata will still have a game in hand. It must be noted that Kerala Blasters FC are on a run of 5 games unbeaten while FC Goa have their own run of 4 unbeaten games. This will be two good teams going head to head for the chance to ensure their position in the qualifying spots.

A Note of Encouragement for Romeo Fernandes

Romeo Fernandes, FC Goa

Limber up young man, you can have a huge say!

Keep an eye out for Romeo Fernandes*. I’ve pegged him as the next big thing for Indian football on the evidence of his last couple of showings. After scoring a goal, setting one up, and befuddling defence in his last outing.

He will be on a high and rightly so. He’s got the kind of trickery that I’m used to seeing in the more high profile leagues of Europe. I’m looking forward to watching him again.

Also, keep a weather eye on what Zico does. The arrival of his preferred coaching staff coincided with the revival of FC Goa’s hopes.

Now that he’s had time to work on his team with his team, you may see further improvement in how FC Goa performs.

As for me, I predict a win for FC Goa by the slightest of margins. I hope they don’t disappoint because I’m firmly throwing my hat in their corner of the ring.

*Does the chap have a Twitter account? Do any of you know? Could you please point it out to me?