Optimism will mingle with curiosity when the revamped Indian Super League’s fourth season kicks off here on Friday with more teams and home-grown players seeking to cash in on the euphoria generated by the country’s maiden FIFA event.
The ISL will now be a four-month drill — double the length of the previous three editions.
Defending champions Atlético de Kolkata (ATK) and Kerala Blasters, who lost to the rechristened unit from the eastern Indian in last year’s summit showdown, will start the proceedings at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the venue for the 2016 final.
Now considered the country’s top-tier league, the winner of which will get a direct spot in the AFC Cup (Asia’s equivalent of Europe’s Europa League), it remains to be seen if it is able to sustain the interest and momentum generated by the U-17 World Cup last month.
Two more teams have been added this season — the brand new Jamshedpur FC, backed by the Tata group, and the highly professional Bengaluru FC, making the switch from the I- League.
With the league, which was conceptualised with an aim to make the global sport more popular in the cricket-mad nation, getting recognition from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), it was logical on the part of Bengaluru FC to make the switch.
Often cited as an example of professionalism in Indian football, Bengaluru FC have been the most successful I-League club in recent years, winning it twice and finishing runner-up once.
More Indian players, more teams, more matches and more months – this is already being touted an ISL with a difference.
Another change in the league is that it has done away with the requirement of mandatory signing of a marquee player, the rule due to which India has been graced by the likes of World Cup winning stars such as Alessandro Del Piero, Marco Materazzi and Roberto Carlos.
Though the ISL has slashed the number of highly-paid foreign recruits, teams like ATK still have on board former Manchester United star Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane, an ex-Tottenham Hotspur forward.
As the focus has now shifted to nurturing home-grown players, teams are now required to have at least six Indians on the field.
While more Indian players will get more playing-time now, off it the number of foreign coaches will still dominate.
Prominent among them are Teddy Sherringham, who has won three Premier League titles and scored the equaliser in Manchester United’s famous 2-1 Champions League victory over Bayern Munich in 1999, and former Real Madrid midfielder Miguel Angel Portugal.
The 51-year-old Sherringham joined reigning champions ATK in July, while Portugal is helming Delhi Dynamos.
The move to field more Indian players in the playing XI is a wise one, reckoned Sherringham and Chennaiyin coach John Gregory.
“I think it’s a good decision to have six Indians on the pitch at all times and it means Indians getting more chances to play and show their skills,” the former Manchester United legend had said.
Gregory added, “We don’t have a marquee signing this year but you will see that we have invested our money in young Indians who will not just come on for 10 minutes, but will form an integral part of my squad this season.”
NorthEast United’s coach Jo o Carlos Pires de Deus was surprised by the quality of Indian footballers.
“You ask me if the Brazilians in my team will produce magic… but what is magic? It’s not limited to Brazilians.
Even the Indian players in our team are very skillful and can produce a lot of magic,” Deus said.
As far as the opening game is concerned, ATK’s rivalry with Kerala Blasters has grown over the past few seasons.
Sherringham described the Blasters as the biggest threat to ATK’s ambitions.
ATK will be without their star signing Keane, who is nursing an Achilles injury and will not be part of the opening game.
Chennaiyin FC, Mumbai City FC, FC Pune City, NorthEast United FC and FC Goa complete the line-up.
The final is slated for March 17 in Kolkata.