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ISL 2020-21 Season Preview: Indian Football Paradoxes Converge in a Goan Bubble

A lot has changed in the six years since the Indian Super League (ISL) first began. The biggest change though has arrived this season, in the form of two entities that bring with them a fan following unlike any other in Indian football. However, SC East Bengal and ATK Mohun Bagan aren’t the only stories for the coming season. A lot remains up in the air. And a lot of dust is yet to settle.
ISL 2020-21 season preview

The ISL organisers have done a wonderful job to kick-start the game. The negativity of the bio bubble, the frustrations over assembling squads and fear of injuries have all been overwhelmed by the fact that there will be football at a stretch for three and half months.

The Indian Super League (ISL) was born with a silver spoon in its mouth. When it launched in 2014, it had everything a freshly minted league could ask for — substantial resources, strong organisational capabilities and the backing of a national federation, ready to bend till it fell flat on its face.

And yet, the expensive engine failed to acquire the correct oil needed for a smooth take-off. It lacked a couple of things, mainly. It didn’t have the necessary ingredient to fill up the stands on a regular basis. And that meant the serum to inject life in a football tournament — the fans — was always missing.

The seventh edition of the ISL beginning in Goa is going to be different. Notwithstanding the bio bubble and empty stands. It has found its vaccine ahead of Coronavirus breakthrough. This is no attempt to undermine the other competitors but the entry of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal (in their new avataars) is set to make for an altered ISL altogether.

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Bringing the two Kolkata teams on board wasn’t easy. Plans had to be hatched beyond the borders of India. Rules had to be changed (read abused) at the highest level. No doubt, it was all worth the effort.

Ideally, the centre of attraction should have been Mumbai City FC. For the first time ever, a rich and famous entity like the City Football Group has come into Indian football. They have come not by offering half-hearted technical support. They have pumped in considerable money to raise a crack side. Some of the country's best players like Mandar Rao Desai, Rowllin Borges, Raynier Fernandes, Vikram Pratap Singh, Farukh Choudhary have been roped in at the start of the season. 

The might of investment is visible in the foreigners’ recruitment, too. Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh, Bartholomew Ogbeche are all tried and tested footballers, who have now assembled in Mumbai’s formidable squad. To add to it, there is the man in charge, Sergio Lobera, who would attract attention for a completely different reason altogether. 

Multiple times I-League winning coach Subhas Bhowmick has played for both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal for 11 seasons. “I will follow Mumbai City with great interest,” he says. “Lobera was dumped most unceremoniously by FC Goa last season because he was a no-nonsense coach. I want to watch how he gives it back this time.”

Bhowmick may well be an exception. On the whole, the prospect of an ATK Mohun Bagan versus SC East Bengal clash has overshadowed all other aspects of ISL 2020-21. The two teams had been playing each other since 1920 and yet, there is always a fresh angle to this rivalry each time there is a clash on the cards.  

It will be no different this time around. Both clubs have put up their iconic institutions up for sale to become members of the ISL family — a tournament that incidentally was described by the AIFF boss in 2014, as a purely “entertainment” tournament. And both the clubs took different paths to achieve to get there.

Mohun Bagan’s transition from Mohun Bagan AC to ATK Mohun Bagan has been rather smooth. They, arguably, have the best team on paper. East Bengal’s conversely have had to struggle. They went from door to door looking for an investor. Finally, top bosses in the corridors of power in Bengal took a special interest in getting them the “investors” — now more important in Indian football than skills on the pitch. Hopefully, it won’t prove to be an unhappy marriage.

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On the matter of skills, how spectacular will this edition of the ISL be in the early days? There are doubts within. A franchise official says: “We no doubt are getting into the deep sea to cross the channel without the required equipment.

“Because of the Coronavirus and the bio bubble protocols, no team will be able to hit the pitch with more than four weeks of training. Another two weeks of training time would have been welcomed by all coaches. But since it is beginning on November 20, the lack of preparations could be evident, especially in the initial rounds.”

There are teams like, say, Bengaluru FC, who have perhaps done better. One of the hot contenders for the title, they began training early at a different base in their state and entered Goa without breaking the bio bubble. It will definitely help them. But bringing in foreign recruits from all over the world was a tough task for every franchise; not every foreign footballer could spend enough time in team training sessions to truly satisfy a coach. 

There are other problems, too, especially from the organisational point of view. Not every franchise was pleased by the help (or the lack of it) they received from organisers in tackling issues regarding training grounds, hotels etc. However, we are going through a phase where even filing an RTI is frowned upon. Indian football is no different. Franchises know it.

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Finally, the football. The promos and publicity material boasts of top class foreign players and big names in the coaching staff. Officially, it is the top National League of India. So, the focus, naturally, should be on the Indians. There will be keen eyes watching the exploits of  Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Sandesh Jhingan, Prabir Das, Rahul Bheke, Subhasis Bose, Pranoy Haldar, Udanta Singh, Aniruddh Thapa, Ashique Kuruniyan, Sahal Abdul Samad, Sunil Chhetri and others in a season that remained a non-starter for the past several months. 

These players though are more or less established names, regulars with the national team under Igor Stimac. But what about those on the fringes hoping to make an impact? Last season, when an upcoming striker like Jobby Justin spent a lot of time on the bench, it left Indian fans frustrated. But ATK coach Antonio Habas could hardly be blamed. He had better foreigners in hand. And he was employed to win trophies. 

This dilemma will continue to remain.  You hope we see players like Nishu Kumar, Narender Gehlot, Sumit Rathi, Suresh Wangjam, Rahul KP, Sheikh Sahil, Lalegmawia, Rahim Ali, Rohit Dani, Vikram Pratap Singh more on the pitch than idling on the bench. But given the structure and style of the franchise league, it is difficult to imagine these youngsters getting enough match time. 

A look at the Mumbai City FC squad will reveal the reality. They have named only two strikers – both foreigners. There is hardly any reason to blame a particular club. Local footballers, especially strikers and central defenders have limited role to play in Indian club football. Gehlot and Rathi, Rahim Ali and Dani may have to wait more to prove their worth.

The ISL organisers have done a wonderful job to kick-start the game when most other disciplines are struggling to make a comeback in the midst of ongoing pandemic. The negativity of the bio bubble, the frustrations over assembling the squads, the struggle to find the right pitch to practice and fear of injuries have all been overwhelmed by the fact that there will be football at a stretch for three and half months.

At the same time, like all roads lead to Rome, football is mostly about the success of the national team. Foreign coaches and footballers are temporary distractions – used cleverly to sell the product. The long-pending three matches in the World Cup qualifiers scheduled next year will be crucial for India’s Asia Cup qualification. If the 11-team cash-rich league could be of any indirect help to the cause, it would be the biggest reward for the gigantic and challenging exercise taken up by the organisers. Indian fans are watching.

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