The Indian Super League’s (ISL) third edition will pitch familiar foes against one another possibly for the final time as an eight-team franchise format, with its potential merger with the I-League to form a composite national football tournament expected to take place next season.
The reshaping of club football in India, as the All India Football Federation (AIFF), prefers to call it, will see some select clubs of the two leagues included in the combined competition.
The AIFF and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) have jointly, through a taskforce, been looking into the merger possibilities with a favourable deal for all stakeholders concernced. Nothing has been finalised and a clear picture is not expected to come out anytime soon.
Till then, the ISL’s current edition will offer similar thrills that it has doled out on the first two years, with several high-profile has-been stars expected to be on the forefront of attention.
The ISL’s attempt to be recognised as a global brand and the flagbearing tournament of Indian football has seen big former or semi-retired stars come here to receive their pensions. ISL 3 is expected to be no different.
Former Atletico Madrid and Manchester United star Diego Forlan, Brazilian World Cup-winner Lucio, ex-Chelsea midfielder Florent Malouda and former Liverpool and AS Roma man John Arne Riise are some of the esteemed names in the 11-week long tournament, starting on October 1.
The first match pits hosts NorthEast United FC with Kerala Blasters at the Indira Gandhi Stadium here.
Curiously, it will be the third consecutive opening clash rivalry between the two franchises with NorthEast winning 1-0 in 2014 at home and losing 1-3 in 2015 at Kochi.
Blasters, runners-up in 2014, had a trouble-filled campaign last year with much chopping and changing in the team management.
With new co-owners funding fresh expectations, they have handed the managerial reigns to Englishman Steve Coppell and drafted in forward Michael Chopra and defender Cedric Hengbart after 2014. Northern Ireland’s international Aaron Hughes is their marquee player.
NorthEast, under new coach Portuguese Nelo Vingada, have always focused on their young regional players to form the core of the squad with Ivorian Didier Zokora proving the experience and leadership as the marquee man.
Brazilian legend Zico will be on FC Goa’s dug-out as coach for the third straight year as will be Italian Marco Materazzi, for defending champions Chennaiyin FC.
Rise has switched to Chennaiyin from Delhi Dynamos, who will be helmed by another Italian Gianluca Zambrotta. Dynamos have retained Malouda while Goa also kept Lucio as their star quotient.
Forlan will spearhead Mumbai City FC while Portuguese Helder Postiga will hop to conrtibute substantially for former champions Atletico de Kolkata, after limping out of the tournament in his very first match last year.
FC Pune City have hired Spanish coach Javier Habas, Atletico’s coach in the first two editions, to overturn their bungling fortunes but seems to have confronted with fresh trouble having already lost star foreigners Eidur Gudjohnsen and Andre Bikey ruled out with injuries.
The emergence of Indian players from the glitzy tournament to strengthen the national team’s fortunes have been low.
Some notable names like Jeje Lapekhlua, Mandar Rao Desai, Romeo Fernandes, Sandesh Jhingan, have however made themselves prominent.
Any possibility of expansion of the list will be the most burning question.