The Indian Super League (ISL) is back for its sixth edition, with all the glitter and the gold, amidst all the hullabaloo involving the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and All India Football Federation (AIFF) regarding the domestic league structure. Even with the protests from the I-League clubs, and the rebranding of franchises due to financial reasons, the top tier holds promise with the new season starting from October 20.
With Bengaluru FC winning their maiden ISL title last season through an extra-time Rahul Bheke winner, the pressure is paramount for The Blues. Be it the Reliance Sport-funded league or the rebranded I-League, no team has ever successfully defended their title. Bengaluru FC did come close in the 2014/15 I-League season, but Mohun Bagan's Bello Rasaq had other ideas on the final matchday.
The reigning champions have padded their ranks after the loss of the Venezuelan Miku, with the attacking signings of Indian winger Ashique Kuruniyan, Brazilian playmaker Raphael Augusto, and the former Osasuna striker Manuel Onwu. Despite being firm favourites, Carles Cuadrat's side faces tough competition with the runners-up FC Goa managing to retain the core of their squad.
Sergio Lobera-coached "Gaurs" have not added a single new foreigner to their roster and have retained all their players from last season, including defender Mourtada Fall, midfielder Ahmed Jahouh, and two-time Golden Boot winner Ferran Corominas. Adding to that, there's the presence of Brandon Fernandes, Mandar Rao Dessai, and Manvir Singh who all can help take their team to one further step than last season.
The league's goal tally of 254 last season is expected to go up with the arrival of Ghana international Asamoah Gyan at the new manager, Robert Jarni's NorthEast United. On the other hand, Kerala Blasters will be banking on former Highlanders pair of manager Eelco Schattorie and Nigerian forward Bartholomew Ogbeche, and also Cameroon striker Raphaël Messi Bouli, who would look to link up with India's Sahal Abdul Samad. Mumbai City FC's Modou Sougou will also be expected to pick up from where he left off last season.
The teams will be highly motivated ahead of the season with the proposed roadmap to 2024/25 introducing the promotion-relegation system. Moreover, the ISL winners will get an AFC Champions League playoff spot from this season itself. However, there is still a question mark over the privately-invested league functions related to finances, attendances, club stability, and homegrown talent?
Although the initial edition in 2014 broke the broadcasting numbers, partly due to the involvement of marquee players like Alessandro del Piero, Nicolas Anelka, Diego Forlan, Roberto Carlos, Marco Materazzi, Florent Malouda, the league has suffered off late.
The franchises, as is the official term, like FC Pune City and Delhi Dynamos have been rebranded because of financial vulnerability. Being rebranded as Hyderabad FC and Odisha FC, they will continue to take part in the Major League Soccer-like competition, with the former playing its home games at the Gachibowli Stadium in Hyderabad, and the latter at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.
Compounding on such a bookkeeping headache, the in-stadia attendance have continued to plummet, with Mumbai City FC averaging around 4,000 fans per match which is just half of Mumbai Football Arena's capacity. On the other hand, the issue of instability with players and managers have led to varying degrees of inconsistency — Chennaiyin being the prime example, who after winning the title in 2018, finished at rock bottom in the previous edition with a league record-low nine points from 18 games.
Although the league was introduced amid talks of grassroots level development, there hasn't been much improvement in that arena, whereas I-League clubs like Minerva Punjab, with a budget one-fiftieth of an ISL franchise, have pocketed a title with a crop of talented Indians.
With a gap of seven months since Bengaluru FC lifted the title after triumphing over FC Goa in Mumbai, Cuadrat spoke about the concern raised by India manager Igor Stimac — of domestic football not featuring enough games.
"It is a strange situation when you are a professional that you cannot play for so much time. But it is the way it has been working in the country until now because of the calendar difficulties," he said.
In a bold move to better the league and stick to its initial ideals, the authorities announced Martin Bain as the chief executive officer of Football Sports Development Ltd (FSDL) in the second week of October, to right the wrongs and fix the faltered. The Scotsman at the helm of the body that essentially runs ISL, has experience at the highest level, having gained experience at Rangers FC and Sunderland AFC and holding the position as the director of the Scottish Premier League.
Trying to find their own identity in the sixth season, ISL will kick off at Kochi on Sunday, with a Sandesh Jhingan-less Kerala Blasters facing off against a revamped ATK, who have welcomed back their 2014 title-winning manager, Antonio Habas. With the safety lock of no-relegation to be lifted in the future, this season promises to be more competitive, and expectantly in due course of time, football will be reawakened from its long-lasting slumber in the land of diversity.