ISL success not carrying over to Indian Football

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Ever wondered why the success of the Indian Super League (ISL) has not carried over to Indian Football? For this, we must go back to the beginning. The glamourous and charismatic ISL had its inception in 2014. A total of 8 teams participated in it.

Kerala Blasters FC, Atletico de Kolkata, NorthEast United FC, Mumbai City FC, Delhi Dynamos FC, FC Goa, FC Pune City and Chennaiyin FC were the teams that participated. Indian football lovers saw various franchises auctioning for Indian players, just like the Indian Premier League.

A lot of the Indian footballers were brought in on loan by ISL franchises, as I-league was the priority. The initial season witnessed players like Borja Fernandez, Luis Garcia, Iain Hume, David James and Marco Materazzi string up their boots.

The contest engrossed audiences but drew criticism as well. The league has gone on to build its reputation as top tier in Indian football. It even ensures an AFC Champions League spot to the champions of the League Winners’ Shield. Proceedings were a breeze, but what is the scene now? The league can be tagged as triumphant, though why isn’t the same success seen in the national team’s game?

What puts the ISL and Indian Football on different planes?

A couple of things that validate the difference. Number 1, the league’s structure. Officially the top tier in the country hence anticipated running for around 6-7 months and clubs playing 30-40 matches. However, it records just 20 games for each team; playoff participants get slightly more games. A lengthier league is better for the consistency and growth of a player.

Number 2, barring the ISL, national team players partake only in this league. Prior, the country saw contests including Super Cup, Federation Cup and other local leagues. This ISL overshadowed the local leagues. The pandemic saw the Super Cup called off and mainly reserved sides shown in local leagues.

Number 3, an important point, is the number of foreigners on the field. Last season, the limit of overseas players was 7, with 5 permitted to start. This stands as a major reason why India still lack an heir to Sunil Chhetri. The prolific forward is expected to hang up his boots after the Asian Cup 2023. High dependence on foreigners might have profited the league, the clubs and boosted the quality of the Indian players.

Youth Development points to a better future

Nonetheless, the number of prospective youngsters coming through after each campaign has fallen. Earlier, one would notice an abundance of players signing for I-League clubs out of the Tata Football Academy. Presently, ISL clubs put out a reserve team in local competitions. This does the club good as it aids them to add a few new bench options and just a couple make the starting XI, with little match-time. COVID-19 hampered the reserve league as well and ever since it has directly affected such players. Once the pandemic subsides, conditions should certainly improve.

Finally, clubs must put greater emphasis on their academics. Sides like Bengaluru FC, FC Goa and Hyderabad FC do emphasize enough on their academies but the remaining sides must focus more on the grassroots, and nurture kids. Credit to the Reliance Foundation for aiding in developing youngsters who have impacted their teams.

As time passes, other clubs should also give priority to nurturing local talent. The layout requires change, seemingly possible in the near future. With relegation absent, underperforming teams have no motivation. They do not contest in pressure games as they are aware of being back next year.

Such an attitude reflects in the national team, evident from them failing to show up in clutch games. Competition in a league dies without elimination. Qualification from the I-League is important. The inflow of more teams means an increase in the number of games. Players must be allowed to depart for national duty on time. Such matters would need addressing if we are to see Indian football develop and expand.

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