ISL | Indian football’s tryst with the brave new world begins

The seventh edition of ISL — the biggest sporting event to be held in the country after the lockdown — will look to fill the prime-time slot vacated by the IPL.

The post-lockdown revival of sporting activity in India will witness its most significant marker yet when Kerala Blasters and ATK Mohun Bagan (ATKMB) set the ball rolling in the 2020-21 Indian Super League (ISL) opener at the GMC Stadium in Bambolim, Goa, on Friday.

Sport in spectator-less, bio-secure bubbles may have become the norm the world over, but India has only taken gingerly steps towards hosting events, the most notable being the I-League Qualifiers held in Kolkata last month, comprising five teams and 10 matches. The ISL, on the other hand, is an 11-team, 115-match behemoth spread over five months.

The foremost challenge therefore will be to maintain the sanctity of the bubble. Reports of two NorthEast United FC players testing positive have come as a wake-up call. Once on the pitch, a closed-door tournament means players have to find motivation from within.

ISL stadium attendances may have been dwindling — from a match average of 26,000 in 2014 to around 13,000 last season — but clubs such as Bengaluru FC (BFC), Kerala Blasters and FC Goa will miss their passionate fan-base.

So will legendary Kolkata rivals Mohun Bagan (now ATKMB) and East Bengal (now SC East Bengal), who played in front of 63,756 fans in January, while still in the I-League. Silence will rule during their debut meeting in the ISL on November 27, but the clubs, with more than a century’s history behind them, are sure to enlarge the tournament’s footprint.

No real home advantage

With just three stadiums being used, home advantage stands negated. FC Goa, playing in its home environs, may have a slight edge, but even that is expected to even out over the course of the competition.

Being closeted in a bio-bubble for a long duration requires enormous mental strength but for unsettled outfits — nine of the 11 teams have appointed new coaches and seen player upheavals — the setting could act as a glue, at least in the first half of the campaign.

However, the lack of a full-fledged pre-season to offset an eight-month break from competitive action has made coaches wary. An exception has been made to allow five substitutes instead of three, but teams are feeling hamstrung, with a few foreign players in quarantine until last week.

Retaining the core

Regardless, defending champion ATKMB (ATK before the merger) appears best-placed, having retained the core from last season, and added quality defenders such as Subhasish Bose and Sandesh Jhingan. Similarly, the Sunil Chhetri-led BFC is also a settled unit and, with increased firepower upfront, looks set to contend for the top prize again.

Sergio Lobera, who coached Goa to top-three finishes for three consecutive seasons and earned it the coveted spot in the 2021 AFC Champions League, has moved to Mumbai City FC. Owen Coyle, after leading two-time champion Chennaiyin FC to the final last season, is now with Jamshedpur FC.

There is therefore an expectation that the 2020-21 edition will be a lot closer. A steady stream of players arriving from the Australian League has added to this perception. If India’s top division manages to be competitive enough to beat the seemingly real digital fatigue and seamlessly slip into the prime-time television slot just vacated by the IPL, it will be a grand success.

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