8 years ago, the Indian Super League was an unofficial league that FIFA did not bother to recognise. Large-scale marketing and advertising meant that it became an instant hit among the fans. Even though the I-League and the AIFF did everything they could, the ISL unofficially became the top-tier of the country.
So why did the ISL spark and gather such a huge following in a single season? The simple answer is the format. Cricket is the most popular game in India and we are no strangers to the madness during IPL season. It’s a mere 2-3 month event that keeps every cricket fans buzzed and busy for 6 fortnights.
The ISL copied the same strategy by forming 8 teams that never existed prior to 2014. The team owners were huge firms with large capitals who were in for the money, very different from most of the other clubs. The teams played each other twice playing a total of 14 games in the league. By the end of it, the top 4 teams would proceed to the knockouts.
How did the Indian Super League sustain their immediate growth?
The feature that kept the fans was the fact that there was no relegation. It was a league of 8 teams and not an asssociation of tiers. This move meant that no matter how impressive the I-League would grow up to be, it would not get the limelight of the Indian Super League because the focus had been fixed. The I-League could not do much themselves either.
The ISL was an unofficial league which did not take too much time. The I-League on the other hand had a longer campaign in which the usual rules of relegation and continental cups stood. Thus, some players played for an I-League team and an ISL team at the same time. But the I-League knew that sooner or later their obvious lack of fanfare would cost them.
The AFC and FIFA decided to recognise the Indian Super League in 2017, a giant leap. Along with this, India hosted the FIFA U-17 World Cup which allowed the Indian team to participate in a football World Cup for the very first time. This boosted the already growing number of people who were getting into The Beautiful Game.
What is the final impact?
Wihtout a doubt, the Indian Super League has popularized the game to an extent that the AIFF could never have dremt of. And while legally ISL and I-League have the same status, ISL has a clear unspoken edge over the I-League. Teams like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal joined Bengaluru FC in the Indian Super League last season, making it a 11 team league which would spread for over 6 months.
One of the most intriguing points that fans of the sport always question is whether the ISL has benefitted Indian Football? It has. Youth development was one of the key features that every team has focused upon and has delivered. The FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2017 was a wild card to this endevour as it rode on the heavy inflow of fans that were getting into the sport for the very first time.
It has given the active players a bigger stage to perform and the upcoming players more opportunities. The performance of the National Team has been great as well. From being stuck in the range of 150-170 in 2014, the team now fights for places in the 90-110 range.
However, is the growth going in the right direction? Not really. While the growth is undeniable it is not sustainable. Football is more than just the sport. It is the emotions attached to it. The Indian Super League is not very different from the proposed controversial European Super League. The AIFF should create a well defined structure that would allows small teams to grow rather than letting the elite teams fight it out for themselves.
The outstanding marketing and capital invested can be looked upon as steroids that were necessary to get Indian Football to a certain level. An excess of this will harm the system and will defeat the purpose of the entire endevour. A league merger which would consist of the promotion and relegation is the next step forward.
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