CHENNAI: If the third season of the Indian Super League were an episode of the popular sitcom Friends, it would probably be titled ‘the one that everyone couldn’t wait to get over with’. It might be a tad unfair on the eight teams set up for battle from Saturday, but all the questions being asked are of what happens after December. It’s only been three years, but this could be the last season of the show as we know it.
The ISL may or may not change to a longer format in 2017, but one thing is for sure — it will not be the same. With the U-17 World Cup hogging up the calender in October next year, ISL, at the very least, will have to spill over into January. That changes the dynamics of everything, right from player recruitment to wage structure. It will be a big culture shock, but if how the teams are lining up this season is any indication, it is not one that they will be completely unprepared for.
Long-termism may be contradictory to everything that ISL stands for currently, but at least a few teams are looking at life beyond three months. A comparison of season three and one will show how much has changed. Take the marquee players for instance. While in the inaugural season we had the perpetually benched Robert Pires, there is now the lower-profile but more effective Didier Zokora.
Alessandro Del Piero’s final Italian appearance came a full five years before he turned up for Delhi Dynamos, but Kerala Blasters’ Aaron Hughes and, before his injury, Pune’s Eidur Gudjohnsen had both played Euro 2016. The ISL still attracts players in the sunset of their careers, but it’s still a far cry from the zombified versions of erstwhile superstars that appeared in season one. “The marquee players were bad the first couple of seasons. There’s no denying that,” says former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia. “We hope that this season, things will be better.”
Another development that highlights the changing mindset of ISL honchos is the invasion of I-League players. When the league first came into being, franchises looked at the I-League Africans and Brazilians with contempt. Three years on, Sony Norde, Dudu Omagbeni, Katsumi Yusa and Luciano Sabrosa all expect to play a major part for their ISL teams. There is a new-found appreciation for the knowledge of Indian conditions that these players possess.
“The ISL franchises have definitely gotten wiser,” says former India striker Abhishek Yadav, who is now the CEO & COO of India’s U-17 World Cup team. “They are all growing as football teams and are finally realising that they have to sign players who deliver on the pitch, not just off it.”
But perhaps the most significant signal of long-term intent was made by Chennaiyin FC. The Blues snapped up five youngsters from the AIFF’s elite academy, three of them 18, the other two an year younger.
All of them have been offered multiple-year contracts. The five had been selected for a training stint at FC Metz in France when Chennayin snapped them. In his pre-tournament press conference, Marco Materazzi even suggested that an appearance off the bench this season was not out of the question for the kids. For the first two editions of ISL, the final in December was followed by franchises going into hibernation mode for the next six months. This year might just be the first time, they decide to stay awake.