Chennai: The ‘sleeping giants of football’ woke up to a new dawn with the inauguration of the Indian Super League (ISL) last year and the game has only got more and more popular since then as we reach the doorstep of a new season.
The heart of every football lover pounded as superstar Rajnikant holding the football jumped on the podium depicting his stout frame on Saturday. The ceremony saw a great lusture with the presence of Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, legendary batsman Sachin Tendulkar and industrialist Mukesh Ambani and Neeta Ambani.
In the first season, some of the biggest names in world football such as Luis Garcia (Atletico de Kolkata), Elano (Chennaiyin FC), Alessandro Del Piero (Delhi Dynamos FC), Robert Pires (FC Goa), David James (Kerala Blasters FC) Fredrik Ljungberg (Mumbai City FC), Joan Capdevila (NorthEast United FC) and David Trezeguet (FC Pune City) graced Indian football with their presence and were the major factors in pulling large crowds to stadiums.
This time ISL franchisees have spent even bigger sums and more foreign players have joined the cash-rich league.
Delhi Dynamos hit a jackpot with legendary Roberto Carlos while Helder Postiga has been brought by defending champions ATK for a record ISL fee. Not to forget FC Goa have recruited World Cup winning centre-back Lucio and Kerala Blasters announced the capture of Spanish World Cup-winning team member Carlos Marchena as their marquee signing. Portuguese winger Simao Sabrosa is also a new entrant in the league and will be seen in the NorthEast United FC jersey. Meanwhile, former Chelsea players Adrian Mutu and Florent Malouda will also be seen piling their trade in the league for their respective leagues Pune and Delhi.
The first season saw an emphatic finish to the event. First we saw a close fight for a spot in the knockouts and then in the semis, Chennaiyin FC, after their shock defeat in the first leg, made a brilliant comeback with three goals in the second leg; however, they still lost the tie in the dying moments of the match. The finale also saw a fitting climax as a late goal by Mohammed Rafique made Atletico de Kolkata the winners.
While getting dramatic finishes in every match is not possible, what an Indian football fan expects is to get to watch quality matches which is rarity in the Indian scenario.
To make the league more competitive and to raise the standard of the game, the ISL needs heavy investment. Last year’s success has led to many full-time players from European leagues and star Indian players like Sunil Chhetri joining the league and if the ISL keeps improving every year, we can see many others getting involved.
Most of the teams have signed some excellent players, but Atletico de Kolkata look the most balanced. They are surely the favourites to defend their title. They have brought in some excellent players like Postiga as their marquee player. The Kolkata outfit, though, chose to let go of forwards Fikru Teferra with Canadian star Iain Hume. But the Ganguly co-owned team managed to add Arata Izumi and Rino Anto in the auction. So they will surely be the team to watch out for.
Their opposition for the first match, Chennaiyin FC, is another team that can go all the way and really give other teams a run for their money. The focus of the team has always been ‘you score one, we will score two’, which kept them top of the table last year in the league stage. They have roped in ATK’s star from last year, Fikru, and have done well to keep Elano as their marquee player. There is more than a bit of Brazilian flavour in the Chennaiyin ranks this year with the captures of defenders Eder and Mailson.
Last year’s runners-up and surprise package Kerala Blasters have been the most active club from the league during the summer and have made a flurry of new signings to make them a strong contender for the title. They have also brought in Peter Taylor as their new head coach and the Sachin Tendulkar-owned franchisee can be once again seen as the dark horse this time around. Although they don’t have quality as compared to Kolkata and Chennai, their never-say-die attitude can keep them right up there this season as well.
From runners-up of last season, we move to the semi-finalists – FC Goa. They were almost the fairytale story of the first edition. After making a slow start, they hit the groove and thanks to some brilliant football under legendary coach Zico managed to enter the semis but only to be eliminated in a heartbreaking penalty shootout. They made one of the biggest signings of the summer with former Inter Milan and Bayern Munich centre-back Lucio and did well to retain the services of Romeo Fernandes, Laxmikant Kattimani, Mandar Rao Desai and Narayan Das.
The so called ‘Galacticos’ of the Indian Super League, Delhi Dynamos, have invested heavily this summer. They have brought in what is seen as arguably the biggest signing of this season – Brazil legend Roberto Carlos. Besides, Delhi managed to acquire big names like Indian ace striker Robin Singh alongside the foreign duo of Florent Malouda and John Arne Riise. Delhi finished fifth last time around and that was due to their inconsistent performances throughout the season. But this time around they look more balanced and can post a threat to the favourites.
FC Pune City management placed David Platt at the helm of the team affairs and the person who had been the assistant coach of Manchester City might as well be the person who will be able to guide Pune to glory. The magnitude and ability of their new signings are quite frightening for their opponents. Adrian Mutu, Didier Zokora, Tuncay Sanli, Eugenesin Lyngdoh, Roger Johnson, Jackichand Singh and a few more will be a real handful.
From one team in Maharashtra to the other – Mumbai City FC. Mumbai have a lot to prove in the second season following a torrid time in the inaugural edition. They finished second from the bottom of the table in the eight-team competition. However, they have roped in the best of Indian talents in the form of national captain Sunil Chettri but comparing them to the other teams, they still far from a threatening outfit.
Last but not the least it’s NorthEast United FC. Co-owned by Bollywood hunk John Abraham, NEUFC seem to have a policy of promoting footballers from their region. The majority of the Indian players in the team are from the north-east. That, however, hurt them in the first season but despite that they are sticking to it this time as well. They have got a new coach in Cesar Farias from Venezuela who will be looking to help the team better their last-place finish last season.
But the season will take a while to warm-up considering it coincides with the big India vs South Africa cricket series at home, but considering the headlines it made last season, it sure will grab its share of attention once the ‘Beautiful Game’ begins today.