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Lots of positives but plenty to ponder ahead of Indian Super League Season 3

Now in its third year, the tournament’s birth pangs are over but it’s still some way from settling down.

football Updated: Oct 01, 2016 14:07 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Indian Super League
Northeast United FC's defender Reagan Singh (C) and teammates take part in a practice session at The Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati on Friday. Northeast take on Kerala Blasters in the ISL 3 opener on Saturday.(AFP)

That this could be the last Indian Super League (ISL) as we know it must be factored into conversations as the third edition begins in Guwahati on Saturday. The ISL’s birth pangs are over but it’s some way from settling down. That means an equal measure of positives and points to ponder.

Read | Familiar rivals gear up for battle as ISL season 3 kicks off in Guwahati

The positives first. Interest has grown. Chennai had 12,000 watching an ISL game last term when the city was flooded and on Thursday, 96 journalists turned up for a Chennaiyin FC event. Kochi regularly had attendance in excess of 60,000 though Kerala Blasters finished last; a point acknowledged by football magazine ‘FourFourTwo’.

When India played Turkmenistan in a World Cup qualifier last March, Kochi looked like it was hosting a Test. Two months later, when Goa held a Federation Cup semi-final, it wasn’t even that. Contrast that with FC Goa’s home games in ISL 1 and 2.

The integration of the I-League and ISL is some time away but Delhi Dynamos and FC Pune City will participate in youth leagues organised by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) this year. From training referees to youth team coaches, ISL has contributed. Youth team players, too, if you consider the boys who train at FC Metz were signed by Chennaiyin FC. The new under-21 rule this term also means that nearly all franchises have a teenager in the squad.

Stability

Coaches like Zico and Materazzi have brought stability by staying for a longer period as opposed to a season or two. (Fil photo)

Coaches Zico (FC Goa) and Marco Materazzi (Chennaiyin FC) have brought stability by staying for the third season as have imports Borja Fernandez and Ofentse Nato (Atletico de Kolkata), Bernard Mendy (Chennaiyin FC) and Gregory Arnolin (FC Goa).

Barring Nato and Fernandez, ATK retained five foreigners. John Arne Riise, Chennaiyin FC’s marquee, and Didier Zokora have returned though for different teams. For Florent Malouda and Lucio, this will be a second season. Rumours have it that Dimitar Berbatov may replace Eidur Gudjohnsen at FC Pune City.

Read | A look at the eight marquee signings ahead of ISL season 3

But that’s also one of the points to ponder. With an average age of 29, India tops the oldies’ list in this summer’s transfer window, according to Goal.com, which sourced the data from Fifa. If the league becomes longer, will it attract young talent such as Stiven Mendoza, who is now with New York City FC? Will players in the twilight zone return? David Platt, Pune City coach last season, had told HT it would be a challenge getting them to spend over six months in India.

There is also no clarity on how equipped the franchises are to fulfil the AIFF and AFC club licensing criteria should ISL become India’s official league in 2017. By the fifth season, all teams are supposed to have their academies but that seems unlikely. A number of franchises also have training ground issues, solving which could reduce expenses on pre-seasons abroad.

But between ISL 2 and this, India have won eight of their last 10 matches. Bengaluru FC are one clean sheet away from making AFC Cup history and Fifa president Gianni Infantino exuded good vibes in Goa this week. Ephemeral it may well be, but the atmosphere’s positive going into ISL3.