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ISL: Is the magic waning?

ISL: Is the magic waning?
When the concept of the Indian Super League (ISL) was brought to the fore, Indian fans were genuinely excited. The prospect of seeing bonafide international players and Indian players playing in the same team was a truly mouth-watering idea for the Indian football contingent. The league, at that time, was thought to be a revolutionary concept which would give much-needed exposure to Indian football.

Since its inception in 2014, the ISL teams have done everything in their powers to bring about a so-called revolution in the football arena, from tying up with Spanish La Liga giants Atletico Madrid which gave the birth to Atletico de Kolkata to getting on board players of tremendous international repute like Luis Garcia, Joan Capdevila, David James, David Trezeguet, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Elano and of course Alessandro del Pierro. With star-studded presence like this on a domestic league, the fortune of Indian football was looking brighter than ever. But if you look behind the curtain of the glamour and majesty of the ISL, you will perhaps see a much different picture. There is a nagging question about how long a league like this can survive in a cricket crazy land once the novelty has worn off. Or a better question should be that are these leagues just a business promotion or are they taking country's football to the next level? The first edition of the league had seen crowds flocking to the stadiums, but the lurking danger is whether they go the Formula One way once the initial glamour wears off.

Roberto Carlos who is the most famous footballer in ISL-2 and a genuinely world beater at his time in Real Madrid and Brazil has joined the Delhi Dynamos as player-coach and says his aim is to make India the champion team of Asia. The Brazilian stalwart has gone a step further by setting a deadline for his ambitious plan. He honestly believes within "one or two years Indian players will witness an evolution like never before." How many times have we heard that before? And as if to buttress the argument of Carlos, Elano, the highest scorer in the inaugural edition of the ISL, says having so many Brazilians in the tournament is a positive sign because it is going to improve the quality of Indian football.

When it comes to payouts, the Indian Premier League (IPL) is unmatchable or so the market analysts perceived. But they did not reckon with the price the marquee players are valued in the ISL, even if they are no longer hot properties internationally.

While most overseas marquee players in ISL are paid upwards of close to Rs.5 crore when the top Indians are valued in lakhs, only a couple touchingly close to the eight-figure mark.

For instance, someone like Italian Alessandro Del Piero could command in his first season last year as much as say Mahendra Singh Dhoni does after six years in the IPL. That's saying something for the universal popularity of football even if the cricketers are seen as demigods in India.

If Dhoni can boast of winning all the three ICC Cups in shorter formats and taking the Test side to the top of the heap, Del Piero's credentials are no less impressive considering his achievements with his national and Italian club Juventus. The jury on the long term success of this tournament is still out. Many top India footballers, including the iconic Bhaichung Bhutia, feel the I-League should be preserved and protected if Indian football has to survive. Their fear is ISL will soon become a haven for unwanted European stars. With six overseas players and five Indians in a line-up how is it going to help Indian football, they ask. This is a rather pertinent question to ask, the answer to which lies three to four years down the line.

But to sow the benefits of this tournament, one has to have a consistent mass appeal season after season, the likes of which the IPL has maintained over the years. Sadly, though, some of the magic of this tournament seems like already waning. The craze that accompanied the first edition, when the theme song Let’s Football meant something to each and every supporter of the franchises is slowly wearing out in the second edition. With Roberto Carlos the only true bonafide superstar in the tournament this year compared to last year’s more recognizable stars, the fans are struggling to get behind a specific face in order to cheer in the stadiums. Yes, they can always cheer for their favourite team but having a recognizable face up front just gives the fans that much extra incentive to scream their lungs out to support.

The buzz, this year is somewhat missing from the tournament. Last year, due to it being a new concept, the excitement could be felt in the air. Not so much this year. It’s like a classic case of a child playing with a new shiny toy in the market and eventually losing interest from it. The ISL in its inceptive year was something that the Indian football fans had never seen before. Superstars of the international repute playing with Indian players for a team bought by the who’s who of the country. This was a rather interesting concept for the Indian football fanatics who had only seen these players play on their TV screens. This year, though, there is a distinct lack of star power in the league. The marquee players this year with the exception of Roberto Carlos are considered to be a step down from the players of the last edition of the league. With the likes of Ronaldinho, Didier Drogba among others who were rumoured to be making their debuts in this year’s edition, anything less than that would have to be considered a disappointment. And that is exactly what happened. With their hopes deflated the football fans are finding it pretty difficult to trudge back to the stadiums.

The Indian National Football team is still in the same level where they were before the ISL came into being, if not worse. They have failed to win any one of their World Cup qualifying matches, losing left right and center which begs the question to be raised again: What has ISL done for Indian Football lately? The answer, as they say, is still blowing in the wind. One thing is for sure, with the ISL teams playing in front of relatively empty stadiums in the second edition, the initial novelty of the league may be wearing thin.

Sayak Dutta

Sayak Dutta

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