ISL 2020-21: Countdown begins for a season like no other

The 2020-21 ISL season is set to begin on November 20. Sandeep Shetty / ISL / Sportzpics

Editor's note: The Indian Super League (ISL) announced the first 11 rounds of fixtures for the 2020-21 season on Friday, October 30, 2020. This story was first published on October 23, 2020.

After seven months of eerie silence, Indian football finally returned with a bang with the I-League qualifiers this month. Well, not so much a 'bang' in terms of the football itself, which had its moments, but the mere act of it happening. And it ended with old boys Mohammedan Sporting sealing their return to the big(ger) stage while also producing some killer Ekta Kapoor-esque drama off the pitch.

While the division they've entered won't kick off till December, the newly-crowned top division, the Indian Super League (ISL) is now less than a month away. The ISL will start on November 20, inside a bio-bubble in Goa, where most teams are currently in pre-season camps. Few other details have been revealed -- like the end date, the rough schedule or how it will be adjusted to accomadate the the three teams participating in AFC competitions from January -- but what we do know is that this is going to be an ISL season unlike any so far.

It will be behind closed doors, at a single venue, featuring the two Kolkata giants for the first time, the City Football Group-backed Mumbai City FC in its new avatar, and lots of new faces on and off the pitch. Here's how things stack up four weeks out from Matchday 1

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The new and new-ish

Over this summer, the most successful side in ISL's short history and one of the two biggest footballing institutions in India became one -- ATK Mohun Bagan. We knew this was going to happen already, but what we didn't know was that they wouldn't have to wait long to be reunited with that other venerable old institution of the Maidan.

East Bengal are now SC East Bengal, a flashy new prefix coming along with a new investor -- announced by the Chief Minister of West Bengal herself - and now find themselves in the spanking new environs of the ISL.

To add to the drama quotient, they have a former 'Spice Boy' in charge, appointed after most other teams had already finalized their squads. Robbie Fowler is going to have to move with some alacrity to match, or beat, what he had achieved last season in Australia, his only previous proper go at management. Expect his football to be a tad more staid than those famous beige suits, though.

Their old (and new) rivals continue with Antonio Habas, and the majority of the squad that so convincingly won the playoffs last season with ATK. And they have added the one man in the Indian national team who does not really look out-of-place doing a Viking clap, Sandesh Jhingan. Fitness permitting, this could be a win-win for all parties.

- Robbie Fowler factfile: Success built on defence and defiance

- Sandesh Jhingan and Antonio Habas a match made in heaven

Old favourites and history-makers

Perma-favourites Bengaluru FC are tugging at heartstrings with a sons-of-the-soil tribute on their away jerseys (red and yellow stripes on their sleeves, an homage to the state colours of Karnataka), while hoping that new signing Kristian Ospeth can pull enough strings in attack to dispel the gloom that had descended on their atypically blunt forward line last season. Finally, a Viking playing for the side which brought that (now) infernal form of celebration to these shores. He may not have anyone to clap to this season, but can he do enough to fill that Miku-sized hole in the 'Goals For' column?

FC Goa are going to make history, the first Indian team to play an Asian Champions League group stage match, but before that they have a league stage (shield, title, first-place, what do you call it?) to defend. They're going to have to do it with almost a brand new team, the core replaced, and a new manager in Juan Ferrando. As exciting as the prospect of a rebuild is, there's massive risk. Just the way the club like it, then. At least they won't need adjusting to the climate.

- Juan Ferrando, the 'football obsessed' coach with ties to Barcelona and Wenger

- New kid Ishan Pandita ready to show Goa, ISL what the fuss is all about

Southern stars and lovable underdogs

Kerala Blasters, being the Kerala Blasters, have a new manager in charge. Kibu Vicuna won the I-League in commanding fashion, then saw his team get swallowed whole by ATK. He'll have a point or two to prove. There are exciting new additions as ever -- former Celtic cult hero Gary Hooper the headline-grabber -- but everything depends on the management showing a modicum of patience with, and belief in, their man on the touchline.

Hyderabad FC's pre-season got off to the worst possible start when their manager, Albert Roca, for whom they had waited nearly a whole season, got an offer from Barcelona. The Barcelona. Naturally, an offer too good to refuse. Manuel Marquez Roca has had the unenviable task of whipping last season's worst team (by a margin) into shape within two and a half months. But even he has had more than a month's head start on Fowler.

Oh, and the new Roca will have to do his whipping without his best player. Marcelinho has gone back to the franchise that brought him to India, just that it is now Odisha FC. The club, meanwhile, may not have moved town again but have had other sweeping changes this season. Youth-loving, attack-all-the-time coach Josep Gambau has moved on, to be replaced with the far more pragmatic Stuart Baxter. His task, to turn the league's most lovable underdogs into serious contenders come the business end of things.

- New Odisha coach Stuart Baxter hopes to emulate South African success in ISL

Dark horses

Jamshedpur FC will be hoping that the Owen Coyle revolution can be televised live out of Jamshedpur Goa too. With Nerijus Valskis following his manager up north, and a strong core of Indian midfielders begging to be trusted, it may very well be.

Coyle leaves Chennaiyin FC in the hands of a man Asia hasn't seen before, Csaba Laszlo. With the spine of last season's thrilling side intact, his main objective will be to remind them that they don't have to put their fans through the wringer every time, that playoff places can come in more straightforward fashion than a late, late surge up the table.

North East United have, as is their wont, gone under the radar. With a decent squad on their hands, they will be hoping that the most recent Catalan to come to India, Gerard Nus, can sprinkle some of that Spaniard-in-India magic on their team.

- The Owen Coyle revolution is televised, straight outta Chennai

- Barcelona, tiki-taka trigger India's own Spanish evolution

- How Coyle turned Chennaiyin into a happy family

Big spenders and big-money imports

Mumbai City, meanwhile, are the radar. The City football group has gone full City football group on the ISL, hoovering up superstar after superstar. Bartholomew Ogbeche, Adam Le Fondre, Hugo Boumous, Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh... the names are big, and they are many. The biggest among them, arguably, is Sergio Lobera. The man who transformed Goa into the merry carnival of chaos that made them everyone's second team, was sacked acrimoniously with three league games left, and is now in charge of a team in the same division with seemingly limitless resources at his disposal. If that chip on his shoulder is placed just right, he will take some stopping.

City are, though, simply the best bankrolled of a league that seems to be considerably better off than many around them. Just ask the A-league, who have seen some A-grade footballers leave Australia for the fun and frolic and money of the ISL. It has been a captivating sub-plot to an increasingly engrossing summer.

That summer is now coming to a close.

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Goa gets ready

As the teams get ready, so does Goa. They have received the teams, put them up in safe spaces - hotels, training grounds, and transportation as sanitized and protected as a bio-bubble demands them to be. The Indian contingents of the teams have started training already, their foreign additions waiting to get out of quarantine to join them.

It isn't perfect -- only four teams have their full squad (including foreigners) in Goa while two teams (Odisha and Chennaiyin) still await the arrival of their coaches. After full quarantine as per the protocols, the teams will have the bare minimum of time to prepare for the season. Training for those already there have been affected by the incessant rain that has hit Goa over the past few days. There are technical issues aplenty.

But in these times, the mere fact that there will be a season remains the abiding takeaway.

Come November 20, the stadiums at Fatorda, Bambolim, and Vasco will be filled with the exhortations and multilingual cursing and yells of celebration, the sounds that accompany this sport that we all love. Even from a distance, on television and mobile screens in homes across the land, those sounds will come as a relief, an escape, as elite football returns to India.