When the Indian Super League kicked off on 12th October, there were a legion of theories surrounding the tournament. After all, this was, as seen by many, the last and the most compelling hope to catapult the status of football in a ‘cricket-crazy’ country like India. Even though there were a few apprehensions regarding the success of the format in the minds of people intially, the pulsating response the format has recieved has brushed off all those thoughts. Although, the biggest fear in the mind of experts was whether the ISL will be able to match up with the factor which was instrumental in destroying the I-League, sustainability. However, the proceedings which ensued at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on that eventful Sunday evening blew all doubts out of the water and ensured that the ISL was one of India’s greatest sporting successes.
A serried stadium, plethora of Bollywood superstars upping the glitz and glamour quotient, presence of legends like Ljunberg, Del Piero and David Trezeguet, coupled with that innate excitement to watch some top drawer football on Indian soil for the very first time made the opening day fixture between Atletico de Kolkata and Mumbai City FC a resounding success. From that moment on, there was no looking back and the ISL gradually escalated to insurmountable heights and eventually became the topic of discussion all over country. However, the most momentous achievement of the league was the thunderous reception it achieved from the Indian audiences.
According to statistics, the Indian Super League is the 4th most popular league in the world in terms of attendance ahead of the Italian Seria A. A staggering 1 million football purists thronged to the stadiums to watch their teams play; a landmark achievement which signalled the dawn of a footballing nation, which in earnest, was the ultimate aim of the organizers of this stellar tournament. The league kicked off with 8 teams representing each and every part of the country and were owned by Bollywood superstars as well as businessmen. After two months and 60 pulsating and highly engaging fixtures, the curtains are set to fall on the 20th of December with the culmination of the league. The two finalists this season are Kerala Blasters and Atletico de Kolkata, who have been on-song since the very first day of this league and will deservedly fight for top honours in what promises to be a thumping finale.
Below, I have enlisted three primary reasons as to why the ISL is one of India’s greatest sporting successes.
#1 Emanation of Indian talent
Apart from the obvious reason of propelling the status of the game in the country, another extremely pivotal aspect of the ISL was to discover Indian talent with unimpeachable caliber. And, quite visibly, they got what they wanted. The brilliance exuded in the pitch by local lads has helped them transcend into local heroes and gain international recognition. The boom of extremely talented Indian players was a sight to relish with Romeo Fernandes, TP Rehenesh, Subrata Paul, Mandar Rao, Subhash Singh, Lalrindika Ralte and Arnab Mondal leading the bandwagon. Such have been the performances of these players that their international counterparts have been compelled to shower praise on them. Here are a few instances.
“Don’t forget about our 21 year old goalkeeper who nobody in the world knew about before the ISL.” – Rikki Herbert.
“They are both young. With Romeo and Mandar, Goa and Dempo have a bright future.” – Robert Pires. Indian captain Sunil Chhetri has been very impressed by the progress of the local lads and feels they have done enough to stake a claim for a spot in the national side.
Indian captain Sunil Chhetri has been very impressed by the progress of the local lads and feels they have done enough to stake a claim for a spot in the national side.
“The ISL has been received very well by the football fans. The tournament has been shown in many channels, including in High Definition and you can access to it in other formats. It has been marketed well. I hope the tournament sustains its popularity in future editions also and keep on growing,” said the 30-year-old striker.
“Some of the young players have done so well in the ISL and I am impressed with their performance. I think whoever comes as India coach will have a look at these players (for selection),” Chhetri said.
#2 Rapturous reception by the Indian masses
As mentioned earlier in this piece, the magnanimous response which the tournament has recieved from the crowd has been overwhelming. The total attendance touched the 1 million mark by the 42nd fixture itself, and the number has soared ever since. The 4th most popular league in the world now, the ISL has experienced an average attendance of 24,357. The opening fixture between Atletico de Kolkata and Mumbai City FC saw a crowd of 65,000 people throng the stadium, while a crowd of 49,000 people went to the stadium to watch the match between Kerala Blasters and FC Goa. That number swelled to a full capacity stadium with over 57,000attending the Kerala Blasters FC vs Atletico de Kolkata game, surpassing expectations and serving up an electric atmosphere inside the ground.
The most important aspect of the massive crowd attending matches is the diversity they share. The audiences vary from football purists to people new to the sport to families coming to the stadium to enjoy experience the stirring atmosphere of the stadium. Also, the catalyst behind the huge attendance is the brilliant marketing strategy adopted by the organizers. The league possessed an ambitious broadcast plan, with the matches being telecasted across eight channels in five different languages. This compelld the crowd to come and experience the matchday atmosphere and soak into the football fever created by enthusiasts. It has managed to notch up 8 billion impressions on Twitter and Facebook and has enjoyed a viewership in excess of 360 million.
Buoyed by the massive numbers the ISL has managed to rack up, an official representative said, “”We are delighted to have hosted 1 million fans across the eight stadiums already in our first season and are proud to be counted as the world’s fourth best football league in terms of average attendance. We have always believed that the sport of football, if given the right platform, has the potential for tremendous growth in India.”
#3 The proposed ISL and I-League merger could do wonders for Indian football
There are quite a few things in this world which put me off but, nothing is more humiliating than the horrendous rating of India in the FIFA rankings list. Reeling in the 170th spot, there haven’t been times which have been darker these. With the position for the head coach vacant and the country experiencing its lowest ever rating, the current scenario for Indian football is horrible. However, with the upward trajectory portrayed by the ISL, the I-League has gone into oblivion.
India’s premier domestic competition, like the ISL, started off on a positive note and attracted crowds to the stadium initially. However, over the years, the I-League has lost its charm due to odd kick-off times, poor infrastructure, dilapidated state of football pitches and poor quality of football on display. There have been talks of merging the ISL and I-League in the next five years and therefore convert it into a mega, 7 month long football competition and AIFF general secretary Kushal Das sounded positive regarding the apparent development.
He said, “Two teams from the I-League are participating in the ISL, we have players from big clubs loaned to the ISL, and there is some association between clubs and ISL teams. In a way, six out of the 10 I-League clubs have come into the ISL, which means that something like this will benefit Indian football as a whole, including the I-League clubs, in the long run.”
“Over the years we would like to have one solid league which goes on for six-seven months. Both can either co-exist or merge; already, there are indications of collaboration between the I-League and ISL.”