MUMBAI: As the inaugural Indian Super League readies to get its first champion tomorrow, former India football captain Bhaichung Bhutia said that ISL has exceeded his expectation in terms of crowd turnout and hoped it would generate interest among fans for upcoming I-League.
"It has definitely been a better success than what I thought it would be, in terms of at least the crowd. It has been very positive and the numbers (spectators) have been quite outstanding. Even (in terms of) the quality of the game as well, it has been good," he told reporters at a promotional event here today.
The Indian football icon said the new tournament would help generate awareness and buzz among the fans, which would help prop up the struggling I-League.
Atletico de Kolkata and Kerala Blasters FC will clash in the final of ISL, a professional football league based on city-franchise model.
"I think with ISL, I-League is going to get more (exciting among fans). I played in the I-League and own a club in the I-League (Sikkim United). With ISL, people are going to see what is happening in I-League now as they will want to see what players like Subrata (Paul) are doing. I-League will benefit from the ISL. I feel that strongly," he said.
With players like Sandesh Jhingan doing well in the ISL, Bhutia felt people would be eager to know more about them and follow them in the I-League too.
"People will start looking at what Sandesh Jhingan is doing, where is he playing. Where is Romeo (Fernandes) playing. Fans would want to see these players. They would want to see more of Sandesh Jhingan, more of Romeo Fernandes, more of Subrata Paul.
"In that (process) they will see I-League also. Otherwise earlier they were not caring much. I am hoping that the I-League will benefit," he said.
The 'Sikkimese Sniper', said it will be difficult for I-League to compete with ISL as there are many restrictions in the domestic football league.
"I-League would always be there but it's difficult for I-League to compete as it is a recognised tournament by the AIFF, AFC and also with the FIFA. So you have got certain rules. Certain rules like you can't play (as many) foreigners," the former national captain said.
"So it's definitely going to struggle in terms of quality. If you bring in six foreigners in playing XI, the game definitely is different.
"Also when you bring in players like (Alessandro) Del Piero and (Robert) Pires, obviously the Indian public would want to watch all big names as well and with that if can also have five or six Indian players playing, nothing like it.
"It's also good that it's not only all about foreign (players). If people complain that it is only becoming (a league with more) foreign players (my answer is) then come and watch I-League," the 38-year-old footballer added.
Asked if he had predicted a Kerala Blasters vs Atletico de Kolkata ISL final, Bhutia said, "I did predict four semi-finalists. Chennai had a great start but with Elano (Blumer) and (John Stiven) Mendoza getting injured, they struggled to score goals. Kerala then came up quite well. I didn't completely expect Kerala and Kolkata because Goa had a good run as well."
Bhutia, who has not played after announcing his retirement from international football, said he will be plying his trade for East Bengal in the I-League this year as he wanted to retire from all levels of the game from the club where he started his career.
"I had promised East Bengal that I would retire with East Bengal jersey. In between I started my own club United Sikkim. I had gone back, I couldn't play with them.
"I started my career with East Bengal and I had promised the fans five-six years ago to retire with them. That could not happen because of United Sikkim, but now I am going back to keep my promise. I always wanted to retire with East Bengal. I might just play five minutes, I might just play five matches but I want to be fit to play that five minutes," he said.