Revamped ISL set for kick off, look to sustain momentum
Kochi: 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 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.