A glorious opening ceremony, fireworks and a houseful stadium announced the grand beginning of the journey of the Indian Super League (ISL) in Kolkata around three years back. It promised to change the football scene in the country and many thought that the ‘Sleeping Giant of Football’ would finally wake up.
And why not? With the ISL off to a buzzing start, the crowds were flocking to the stadiums and everywhere the Luis Garcias and the Robert Pireses were the most discussed topic. The league itself recorded an average footfall of 24,357, which is lower only than the Bundesliga, the Premier League and La Liga.
Flash forward to 2016. Half-empty stadiums (except for one or two cities) and lower TV viewers indicate that there has been a massive downfall from the first two seasons at least in terms of popularity. Is the ISL slowly fizzling out? What changed that there is so less interest about India’s premium football league?
The ISL was first conceptualised along the lines of the highly popular Indian Premier League and it was deemed as the next big thing in the world of sports in the country. Big names like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Ranbir Kapoor, Abhishek Bachchan amongst others were a part of the ISL – a definite winning factor for the crowds. The very thought of watching some of the greatest stars of world football up close was like a dream come true for every football fan in the country. These along with all the pomp and show of the ISL drew huge crowds to the stadiums.
But as times changed so did the people’s hearts. The novelty of watching the biggest stars of football seems to have been lost. One of the reasons is, of course, the league’s inability to draw in the really big names this year. While the likes of Roberto Carlos, Alessandro Del Piero, Nicolas Anelka, among others were the big names of the first two seasons, the only big name this season is Diego Forlan. If you ask the average Indian football lover who Aaron Hughes or Didier Zokora is they would not be able to answer.
The league promised that the famous managers and the international footballers would play a vital role in exposing the youngsters from India get the proper exposure. Thus, eventually, the quality of football of the Indians would improve. However, the promise has not completely lived up to its billing. Yes, Rome was not built in a day, but it has been three years! The Indians have got a lot more exposure but where is the promised level of football? The entire gameplay is slow, filled with long balls and square passes. The ageing stars are the ones who dictate the games and they do it at their own preferred pace. The number of Indian players in the line-up has to be increased if you actually want to see better football.
Another very important factor is the crowd. It would be accurate to say the crowd is an audience – the majority are there for the fireworks, the laser shows, the food and beverages and most importantly to spot their favourite celebrity in the VIP box. Maybe, they actually love football but half the time they are not watching the game. In the first couple of seasons, these things that actually ruin the game seemed to be enriching it. Alas, time has finally caught up and it is out in the open that the league has lost some of its sheen from the previous seasons.
The initiative was right – it did plant India in the map of world football – but somewhere in the implementation the ideals were lost. At the beginning, the ISL showed enough promise to topple even the top European leagues in terms of popularity. But now there is a fear of the league fizzling out gradually. And now with the talks of merging the I-League and the ISL, the future is even more uncertain. Maybe the merger is just the thing for the fans to get their “Let’s Football” cries going once again.