The fourth season of the Indian Super League is only a few hours away as the Indian Football extravaganza commences tomorrow. The first match of the ISL will be between 2014 and last year’s finalists ATK and Kerala Blasters.
Since its inception, ISL has become one of India’s most popular and most viewed sports events and has helped a lot to the cause of popularizing football in India. Here is a guide consisting of all you need to know about the Indian Super League.
India’s first nationwide football league was the National Football League which began in 1996. 10 years later, AIFF re-formatted the league into the I-League in an effort to popularize the sport. However, due to poor quality of football and poor marketing, the league was not that popular.
In 2005, the AIFF signed a television and media contract with Zee Sports which made the channel the official broadcaster of the I-League. However, in 2010, the AIFF signed a 700-crore deal with Reliance Industries and the International Management Group. This gave Reliance-IMG the commercial right to form a new football league amongst other rights.
In 2012, the I-League clubs were not happy with Reliance-IMG and that their commercial partners did not put much effort in popularizing the I-League. However, AIFF assured them that Relaince-IMG would improve their I-League and make it similar to USA’s Major League Soccer.
In June 2013, reports had come out that Relaince-IMG was looking to start their own franchise-based football league that year. The I-League clubs were against this decision and made themselves clear that neither would they transfer any of their players to the new league nor would they sign players who were contracted to Reliance-IMG.
By August 2013, Relaince-IMG signed the number of players required to start their own football league and it would receive backing from the AIFF. The ISL was officially launched on 21st October, 2013 and was scheduled to begin in January 2014. However, a few days later, it was announced that the ISL would be postponed to September 2014.
The ISL teams
After the ISl was officially launched, several big corporations and Bollywood stars had expressed their interest to own a franchise. The bidding for the ISL teams was made on 3 March, 2014 and in April, 2014 the winning bids were announced. They were Bangalore, Kochi, Kolkata, Goa, Mumbai, Delhi, Guwahati and Pune.
The first team to be officially launched was Atletico de Kolkata on 21st May, 2014. They named Antonio Lopez Habas as their coach on 7th July, 2014. The very next day, they made the first marquee signing in Champions League winning footballer Luis Garcia.
Eventually the 8 teams announced were Atletico de Kolkata, Bangalore Titans, Delhi Dynamos, FC Goa, Kerala Blasters, Mumbai City FC, North East United and Pune City. However, on 21st August, the owners of the Bangalore Titans dropped out and Chennai would be given a franchise. The Chennai franchise was named Chennaiyin FC.
The format of the ISL
The inaugural season of the ISL had 8 teams who would play each other in two legs on a home-away basis. The top four teams at the end of the league stage would qualify for the semi-finals. Each semi-finals would have two legs and the winner on aggregate would qualify for the final.
In June this year, Reliance-IMG, AIFF, I-League representatives and AFC met in Kuala Lumpur for a meeting where Reliance-IMG decided to have ISL as the main footballing league. The AFC were against this while I-League clubs Mohun Bagan and East Bengal wanted both leagues to merge.
The AIFF later proposed that the ISL and I-League be run simultaneously with the winner of the I-League qualifying for the AFC Champions League and the ISl winner getting a spot in the AFC Cup qualifying. The AFC approved their proposal and a new format for the ISL was made.
Instead of 8 teams, 10 teams would participate and the tournament would be held from November to March. The matches will be played between Wednesday and Sunday instead of daily. A total of 10 cities bid for the two franchises, namely, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Cuttack, Durgapur, Hyderabad, Jamshedpur, Kolkata, Ranchi, Siliguri and Thiruvanathapuram.
Bengaluru FC and Tata Steel won the bidding for the two new ISl franchises. While Bengaluru FC did not chage its name, the Jamshedpur franchise’s name was Jamshedpur FC.
Many popular companies and personalities in India are owners of the ISL franchises. Indian cricket legends Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly both have ownerships in the franchises. While Tendulkar owns most of the shares in Kerala Blasters, Ganguly is the co-owner of ATK alongside businessmen Sanjiv Goenka, Harshvardhan Neotia and Utsav Parekh.
JSW Group owns Bengaluru FC. It is one of India’s largest business conglomerates with a revenue of $11 billion. Top steel conglomerate Tata Steel owns Jamshedpur FC. Actor Abhishek Bachchan and India’s most successful cricket captain MS Dhoni are co-owners of Chennaiyin FC along with Vita Dani.
Delhi Dynamos was previously owned by cable TV distributor DEN before it was bought by GMS group last year. India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli owns 12% of the shares in FC Goa. Actor Ranbir Kapoor is the co-owner of Mumbai City alongside Vimal Parekh and Wilhelm Saldanha.
Actor John Abraham owns Chennaiyin FC while actor Arjun Kapoor is the co-owner of Pune City.
Strongest and weakest teams
The most successful side in the ISL is ATK. Out of the previous three seasons, ATK has reached the semi-finals on all three occasions, winning the league in 2014 and 2016. Kerala Blasters follow ATK as the next most successful side. They reached the final in 2014 and 2016 with 2015 being a disappointing season for them as they finished last. Chennaiyin FC, FC Goa and Delhi Dynamos follow ATK have also performed consistently in the ISL.
Chennaiyin FC reached the semi-finals in the inaugural year and won the league the following year. However, they disappointed last year by ending 7th. Goa FC also performed well in the first two tournaments, reaching the semis in 2014 and ending the 2015 tournament as the runner-up. However, they came last in 2016.
Delhi Dynamos is one of the most consistent teams in the ISL. They narrowly missed out on a semi-final spot in 2014 and reached the semi-finals in 2015 and 2016. North East United came last in 2014 but improved their performances in the next two tournaments, coming 5th on both occasions.
Mumbai City disappointed in the first two editions, coming 7th and 6th respectively. However, they bounced back last year by topping the league before losing to ATK in the semi-finals. Pune City is statistically, the weakest team in ISL so far. They came 6th in 2014 and 2016 while they ended second to last in 2015.
Indian players who have excelled consistently in the ISL
Several Indian players have showcased their talents on the ISL and many have performed brilliantly across all three seasons. Defender Arnab Mondal produced some brilliant performances during his time at Atletico de Kolkata and was one of their key players from 2014-2016. However, this year, he decided to sign for his I-League side East Bengal instead of playing for ATK.
There are three Indian players who have produced stand out performances in every season of the ISL and they are Sandesh Jhingan, Mehtab Hossain and Jeje Lalpekhlua. Sandesh Jhingan and Mehtab Hossain have been the nucleus of the Kerala Blasters defence since the very first edition of the ISL.
Both have been brilliant at the back and have been instrumental in Kerala Blasters’ success in the ISL. Jhingan has played more ISL matches than any Indian at 41 while Mehtab has played 38 matches in the ISL. While Jhingan will persist playing for Kerala Blasters, Mehtab Hossain will be playing for Jamshedpur FC this season.
Chennaiyin FC’s Jeje Lalpekhlua has been India’s best striker in the ISL with 14 goals and is third amongst the top scorers in ISL history. Jeje was instrumental in Chennaiyin winning the ISL in 2015 and will be somebody to watch out for this season as well.
Top foreign players in the Indian Super League
A number of foreign players have played in the ISL. All-time greats including Roberto Carlos, Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet were among the marquee players in the inaugural season. Other notable foreign players include Luis Garcia, Marco Materazzi and Lucio.
However, the best foreign player in ISl history is Canadian striker Iain Hume who is ISL’s all-time top scorer with 23 goals in 46 matches. Hume represented Kerala Blasters in 2014 before joining Atletico de Kolkata in 2015. He stayed at ATK till 2016 and has rejoined Kerala Blasters for the 2017-18 ISL.
A number of foreign players will be playing this season’s ISl but the most notable ones of them include Robbie Keane, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Wes Brown and Dimitar Berbatov.
Matches to look out for
The matches between ATK and Kerala Blasters have always been thrilling and nail-biting. Hence, the matches between these two teams should never be missed, now that both sides have very strong teams. Matches involving Delhi Dynamos, Mumbai City and FC Goa should be interesting as all three sides are pretty strong.
Impact of the ISL on Indian football
Despite any official recognition from the AFC or FIFA, who considered ISL as only a tournament, the Indian Super League has become one of the most popular sports events in the country. The viewership and social media traffic during the first three editions of the ISL were astronomical and the attendances for ISL matches were higher than expected.
ISL’s popularity shortened the I-League and the I-League’s viewership which was already quite low, decreased even more. The ISL has popularized football in India with many top players who played in the ISL praising India’s footballing appetite and mentioning that Indian football has a lot of potential.