The Indian Super League has become a powerful force driving the popularity of soccer in the country, says Abhishek Sarkar
India’stop soccer league kicked off the season on November 17 with a promise to become even bigger than before. With the introduction of two new teams, the league’s strength has jumped to 10 but all eyes were on the defending champions ATK, formerly Atletico de Kolkata, who changed their name after parting ways with their previous part-owners, Atletico Madrid.
The two new teams were Jamshedpur FC and Bengaluru FC. Jamshedpur FC are owned by Tata Steel. Bengaluru FC needs no introduction as they are a very popular team after winning two ILeagues championships and two Federation Cups besides reaching the finals of AFC cup. Bengaluru FC was one of the favourites to lift the coveted ISL trophy this season.
The opening match of the season at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium Kochi, featuring the home team Kerala Blasters and the defending champions ATK, turned out a damp squib, with no goals scored. ATK’s biggest advantage this season was coach Teddy Sherington, but it turned out to be one to forget for the defending champions as they finished second last on the table, leaving their fans crushed. Last year’s runners up, Kerala Blasters, were looking quite decent before losing an important match to Bengaluru FC, which knocked them out of the semifinals.
Jamshedpur FC looked quite impressive, but they too failed to make the semifinal cut. Bengaluru FC, however,had its finger on the domination button right from the first game all the way to the semifinals. The ‘boys in blue’ went on a rampage, crushing almost every team in their way and finished with the highest number of wins in the league stage by an ISL team in a season. The biggest advantage Bengaluru FC had was that they had managed to retain a lot of their players who have played at the AFC Cup level, which meant they had the cushion of experience.
Sunil Chettri was absolutely brilliant. Right from when he stepped on the field he meant business and showed no mercy to any team who came in way. Another amazing performer in the forward lineup was Edu Garcia, popularly called Miku. Chhetri and Mikuproved a deadly duo throughout the season and were instrumental in getting Bengaluru into the final. But once there, Bengaluru FC were blown away by a resurgent Chennaiyin FC.
Chennaiyin FC had won the ISL in 2015 but struggled in 2016 when they finished at the bottom of the table with only 3 wins. But this season they came in with a bang, ultimately beating thefavourites on their home ground. Now that ISL has been recognized by the Asian Football Confederation, they have automatically qualified for the AFC Cup next year.
The fans had a blast. Said football fanatic Digant, “ISL has surely picked up and now is on par with the (cricket) IPL and it is great to see football get so much love and popularity.” AddedPratith Shetty, “ISL this season was exciting because of the addition of two new teams Bengaluru and Jamshedpur. This season saw many young lads come up with brilliant goals and assists. Another plus point is the experience the Indian players get playing alongside international players. But unfortunately, the quality of referring was not upto the mark as there were a lot of poor decisions. I would suggest the AIFF use the video assistant referee system in the ISL.”
Another fan,NithinNeelakanta, also blasted the referees, saying referee selection was not very good, but he was all praise that football in India is finally reaching a wide audience. The longer season was a challenge, but FC Goa midfielder Bruno Pinheiro said it was good as it gave teams adequate breaks between matches.
Bengaluru FC coach Alberto Roca also said that they wanted the league to be bigger, adding that it was like a sprint run where one must start well to end well. Sadly, for Bengaluru FC, they started brilliantly and continued in the same form through the championship only to fizzle out in the final. But preparations are afoot for the next season and there’s plenty of time to make amends.