After a few hiccups, the Indian Super League (ISL) was finally launched in October 2014 with 8 franchises, each paying a franchise fee reported to be between 12-18 crore (1.3-1.9 million GBP). Franchise owners featured prominent Bollywood actors, cricket stars like Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, and leading businessmen. The league initially attracted top global stars looking to wind down their careers, with the inaugural tournament in 2014 showcasing players such as Robert Pires, Alessandro del Piero, Marco Materazzi and David Trezeguet.
The first two seasons of the ISL were declared a success on the back of impressive stadium attendances and strong TV and digital media ratings. The average attendance during the 2014 season was 24,357, placing the ISL at 4th place globally for association football behind England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga. In 2015, this number went up to 26,376, overtaking the La Liga and taking 3rd place globally. However, the league attendance dipped in the 2016 and 2017 season, as crowd interest waned, and some franchises like Mumbai City FC and Atletico de Kolkata moved to smaller capacity stadiums due to various factors .ISL vs I-League – The battle to be the premier league in India Till the 2017-18 season, the ISL and I-league were held at separate times of the year, with the ISL organised between October and December, and the I-League being contested from January to May. Indian players were typically loaned from their parent I-League clubs to ISL teams, enabling an uneasy short-term truce in the scramble for players. India hosted the U-17 FIFA World Cup in October 2017, forcing the ISL and I-League to be held concurrently between November and April. This led to the best Indian players being snapped up on longer permanent contracts from the I-league clubs by ISL teams. The ISL also added Bengaluru FC from the I-league and a new franchise, Jamshedpur FC to their ranks. The I-League had already been suffering from lack of visibility with respect to the ISL, and this supposed weakening of their teams gave the financially out-matched I-League clubs additional cause for concern. From 2017, the ISL winner also secured a place in the AFC Cup qualifying rounds, lending further credibility to its claims to be India’s future official national league. The proposed road ahead for Indian club football A recent report titled ‘The Sustainable Development of Top-level Indian Club Football’ by AFC’s Alex Phillips and Nic Coward from FIFA recommends an expanded football league with 16 teams no later than 2022-23, with the bottom two teams getting relegated. The report suggests revisions in AIFF’s 15-year deal with IMG-R, plus a review of the 10-year immunity from relegation incorporated in the ISL structure. The trade-off is proposed to be a termination of the franchise fee paid to participate in the ISL. The top tier recommendation is said to include 10 ISL clubs, plus two new entrants, one being the winner of the 2018-19 I-League. The second team would either be the I-League runner-up or a club chosen through an open tender. The plan also recommends a cancellation of the one-city-one team rule instituted to protect newer franchises. A similar route map was suggested for the 2nd tier, with an aim to have 16 clubs participating in it. Should the AIFF be unable to implement a unified league structure by 2019-20, the report proposes a ban on Indian clubs to be implemented by the AFC. The Indian national team since the ‘golden years’ The Indian national team suffered many decades in international wilderness since finishing at 2nd place in the 1964 AFC Asian Cup and 3rd in the 1970 Asian Games. They retained their dominance over fellow South Asian minnows but failed to make an impact on the continental or world stage. A string of tournament victories from 2007 onward were bright spots, as was qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup, where they placed last in their group. Thereafter, a series of poor results, with numerous head coach changes eventually led to Indian being
ranked 173rd in the world in 2015. The U-17 2017 World Cup held in India was the most attended U17 World Cup ever with a total attendance of 134,7133, also beating the record set by Colombia during the 2011 U20 World Cup. It also beat the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup record for total attendance figures.
The Indian U-17 team, whilst not at the level of their global counterparts, showed promise
and a sign of things to come. In recent years, under coach Stephen Constantine, India’s senior team has gone through a mini-resurgence, with its ranking going up to 97th in the world as the Indian team qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup. A focus on youth football The road ahead for Indian football looks promising, with more professional football clubs, better infrastructure, and more money being pumped into the sport than ever before. While the sport is yet to capture the mass consciousness that cricket covets, there are encouraging signs as more and more youngsters have started seeing football as a genuine career option. European club’s academy set-ups are present in almost all major metropolitan cities, targeting the affluent. Meanwhile 206 clubs participated in the U-13, U-16 and U-18 leagues conducted by the AIFF, making it one of the largest youth football efforts in the world. Each ISL and I-League club has a commitment to grassroots football established in their agreements with the league and federation respectively. This might just be the best time in history for Indian football.