The fifth edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) started on Saturday. From its origins as an unofficial league that lasted just two months in 2015, it has grown to become the force that is reshaping Indian football. Since the 2017-18 edition, it has official accreditation from the bodies that govern football in Asia and the world. Lasting over six months, and with games mostly on weekends, the league now competes for prime-time viewership with more illustrious European leagues. Average stadium attendance, though lower than the first season, was still a decent 14,801 in 2017-18.
However, the current structure of Indian football is problematic, with two top-tier leagues running in parallel. The ISL runs in conjunction with the I-League (scheduled to begin later this month), which has been India’s only professional league since 2007. In the battle, covert and overt, to establish singular supremacy, the ISL seems to be pulling its structural and financial weight.
On the one hand, the ISL has a structure that is highly commercialized, entailing higher investment and expenditure, as well as yielding greater revenues. I-League teams may have limited revenues but they enjoy a greater local connect, a feature that runs through the century-old legacy clubs of Kolkata, as well as newer teams with representation from Manipur, Mizoram and Kashmir.
While the I-League has promotion and relegation with a second division, ISL teams are protected from relegation to safeguard the investments of owners in the franchises (Chart 1). Attempts to conduct a unified league have repeatedly run into roadblocks. However, with a directive from the Asian governing body and a looming threat of sanctions in 2019, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is under pressure to resolve the deadlock.
On the field, Bengaluru FC is the only team to have competed in both leagues, having made the transition from the I-League to the ISL in the 2017-18 season. Having won the I-League twice in four years, they had a stellar debut campaign in the ISL, finishing top, eight points clear of the closest rival, before suffering a narrow defeat to Chennaiyin FC in the final.
Led by the indomitable Sunil Chettri, Bengaluru FC has made four successive appearances in the AFC Cup (the Asian continental competition), qualifying to the knock-out phases in all instances and even reaching the final in 2016. The sustained success of the JSW Group-owned team can be attributed to the investment in training infrastructure and the professionalism with which the team has been managed, something other Indian top flight teams are now looking to emulate. The club’s outreach efforts have also meant that they have one of most vociferous set of supporters in the country.
In the previous four editions of the ISL, the most successful teams have been ATK and Chennaiyin FC, both winning the trophy twice. FC Goa has also performed consistently well, reaching the play-offs thrice (chart 2).
This season there have been a host of player and managerial changes across teams. The biggest transition has arguably been in the ATK camp, who, after a dismal previous season, have overhauled their players and coaching staff. They have signed a host of foreigners with a proven track record in India, and a seasoned coach in Steve Coppell, who is managing his third ISL team in three years. Last season’s finalists, Chennaiyin FC and Bengaluru FC, having ensured a large measure of continuity through a stable squad, will be the teams to watch out for in this edition. But, even as the ISL unfolds over the next six months, what happens off the field in the pull and push between ISL and I-League will have a bearing on where Indian football goes from here.
Arjun Srinivas is a recipient of the Mint-Hindustan Times-HowIndiaLives Data Fellowship 2018.