The seventh season of the Indian Super League (ISL) is upon us, with Kerala Blasters and ATK Mohun Bagan kicking things off on Friday. For many reasons, this will be a season like no other in the past, and there are some things I am personally looking forward to more than most...
Sport in the times of coronavirus
I know India has already had the I-League qualifiers and the Indian Premier League, albeit the latter was organised in a foreign country, but the ISL provides the first full instance of a complete league, with closed stadiums and bio-bubbles in place, on Indian soil.
By number of teams and consequent squad sizes, and the overall rigour required for officials, broadcasters and others to maintain the daily hotel room-ground-hotel room discipline, this will be a proper test of how sport might be conducted in the foreseeable future. Let's hope everything goes smoothly, and as it happened often in the IPL, the quality of the sport elevates the spectacle enough to make up for the lack of fans at the grounds.
A new champion, please?
It's a standard plea of mine, in past ISL seasons or even in the IPL. ATK Mohun Bagan might argue they are a new team and hence eligible, but between the erstwhile ATK and Chennaiyin, they gobbled up five of the six titles available, with Bengaluru FC getting their chance in 2018-19. While FC Goa come into the season as league-stage winners, for which they were rewarded for the first time with an AFC Champions League slot.
I am going to be greedy and require a new name on both counts. Nothing rocks up a competition like an underdog triumph, and I will be rooting for all the teams that have never made it far enough to pick up the silverware.
And more Indian goals
In the first couple of seasons, Jeje Lalpekhlua regularly competed for the Golden Boot, while Sunil Chhetri began in 2015 with a bang for Mumbai City FC but really has come into his own as an ISL scorer with BFC over the last three seasons. Yet, returns for Indians among scorers make for modest reading.
Last year, Chhetri was six goals off the Golden Boot, and only Lallianzuala Chhangte (7) and Jackichand Singh (5) even managed more than three goals each among Indians. It's an affliction that then directly affects the national team each time they play, as the onus of scoring goals invariably falls squarely on Chhetri.
With new coaches, the likes of Vikram Pratap Singh, Edmund Lalrindika, Rahim Ali and Rohit Danu should see increasing game time, especially with the five substitutions rule allowing some leeway to making attacking changes late in the game. On similar lines, in six previous seasons, the emerging player of the tournament has gone to attacking players only on two occasions -- Jeje in 2015, and Sahal Abdul Samad two seasons ago. It would be great news, especially for the national team setup, for a new hero to emerge, with goals behind his name, and challenge for a starting place in next year's World Cup qualifiers when they resume.
Can Mumbai City paint the league sky blue?
They were almost there as a finished product last season itself, and the sky blue of the City Football Group is not the only thing that will make Mumbai City the team to watch this season.
Though miles apart, we carry the spirit of Mumbai in our threads and in our heart ��
- Mumbai City FC (@MumbaiCityFC) November 16, 2020
They went ahead and took in head coach Sergio Lobera, who had made Goa the most entertaining team of the past few seasons. Lobera was able to get in Ahmed Jahouh and Hugo Boumous, arguably two of the best midfielders in the league, and Mandar Rao Dessai, the left back who has the most caps of any player in the history of the competition. Defensive lynchpin Mourtada Fall has also come through from Goa, and Bart Ogbeche has joined the attacking lineup. They've laso got in Adam Le Fondre from the A-League.
If there is a weakness in this Mumbai lineup, it could be that there might often be too much class and quality sitting on the bench. Mumbai have to be a shoo-in for top honours, both in the regular league stage as well as the final, even before a ball has been kicked. Lobera will want to maintain the focus on those targets, and if his team have to be foiled, we could be in for some fantastic entertainment.
A derby, at last!
As a broadcaster in a previous season, I too have been guilty of hyping up games like Chennaiyin-Kerala (there was no Bengaluru FC in 2015) as the 'Southern Derby', but such was the demand of the commentary box.
Inside a week, we see ATK Mohun Bagan face-to-face with age old rivals SC East Bengal in one of the biggest games of the season. They may be both repackaged in glossier names and with (hopefully) better management, but the contest at the heart of it is the best rivalry in Indian football. In some ways, BFC joining in 2017-18 earned ISL their first shot at legitimacy and an upgrade from an exhibition tournament (a prominent global football statistical site, until recently, used to indicate the ISL with the rather uncharitable word 'circus' added to their Indian season hyperlink), and the Bagan-East Bengal matches will give it some more relatability.
Now for promotion-relegation to kick in soon, and for the playoffs to be discarded completely...