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Indian football went through times in the 1980s and 1990s, which rolled over into the 21st century as the Indian football league games were well attended in Kolkata, Goa, and parts of Kerala, but the dwindling interest from other states was a cause for concern across the nation.
The National Football League which was later rechristened as the I-League in 2006 struggled to attract viewers and suffered in broadcasting numbers due to poor marketing techniques which further fuelled the idea of a new league.
Kicking Off the ISL
In December 2010, The All Indian Football Federation signed a 15-year deal with Football Sports Development Limited, a subsidiary of the Reliance group. The 700-crore deal was put to paper with a view of starting a new professional league in the model of the franchise-powered Indian Premier League which was turning huge profits since its inception.
Multiple celebrities were backed by business houses in order to fulfill the financial and social criteria for the bidding process of the franchises. Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Ranbir Kapoor, John Abraham, Virat Kohli, and Abhishek Bachchan were the faces of the league for the first few seasons.
The ISL has been a huge factor in setting the standards for football clubs to provide better facilities over the last decade and it was a landmark tournament for the media as well with the superior quality of video coverage along with better commentary attracting more viewers to the screens..
Teams, Tournaments, Triumphs
The 2014 ISL season started with eight teams: Atletico de Kolkata, Kerala Blasters, Goa, Chennaiyin, Pune City, Delhi Dynamos, Mumbai City, and NorthEast United.
The first match of the 2014 edition of the ISL was played between Atletico de Kolkata and Mumbai City with Fikru Teferra scoring the first goal in ISL history with ATK winning the first season as well.
After Chennaiyin and ATK lifted the next two trophies, the number of teams in the league was increased to ten with Bengaluru and Jamshedpur coming into the picture.
Before the start of the 2019-20 ISL season, Delhi Dynamos became the first team to shift their base as the club was rechristened as Odisha while Pune City was disbanded and the franchise rights were sold to a Telangana-based group that formed Hyderabad.
The Kolkata Derby was welcomed with open arms into the ISL
Later, Mohun Bagan merged with ATK to form ATK Mohun Bagan, which was further renamed as Mohun Bagan Super Giant. The other Kolkata giants, East Bengal, have also been competing in the league for the last four seasons.
While Chennaiyin are two-time ISL champions, winning the trophy in 2015 and 2017-18 editions of the coveted league, Bengaluru achieved their maiden triumph in the 2018-19 ISL season, defeating Goa 1-0 in the final courtesy of a goal by Rahul Bheke.
After three-time ISL champions ATK was disbanded as a club, Mumbai City, Hyderabad, and Mohun Bagan Super Giant lifted the trophy in the last three seasons with Sergio Lobera, Manolo Marquez, and Juan Ferrando the three head coaches to lead their respective clubs to the coveted trophy.
Goa became the first club to win the ISL League Winners’ Shield and later represented India in the AFC Champions League. The Shield has since been won twice by Mumbai City and once by Jamshedpur with the Islanders becoming the first Indian club to play in the group stage of the AFC Champions League twice.
Several big names have graced the league since its inaugural edition in 2014 with the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Carlos, Nicolas Anelka, and Diego Forlan were named as the marquee players in the initial seasons.
After the windfall of money spent on these luxury assets in the first three seasons, reality dawned on the clubs as they started investing in lesser-known overseas players who were not in the twilight of their careers.
Ferran Corominas, known as Coro to many Indian football enthusiasts, was brought to the Indian shores by Sergio Lobera in his stint as the Goa head coach.
Under Lobera, Coro broke the league’s goalscoring records scoring 47 goals and assisting a further 16 to add to his goal contributions in only 50 ISL matches. The 40-year-old still holds the record for most league goals in an ISL season with 18 goals in 20 appearances during the 2017-18 ISL season.
The current leading goal-scorer in ISL history, Bartholomew Ogbeche was signed by NorthEast United ahead of the 2018-19 ISL season, and the Nigerian striker led the Highlanders to their first-ever playoffs.
Before the start of the 2019-20 ISL season, head coach Eelco Schattorie and Ogbeche were poached away by Kerala Blasters who could only finish seventh in the subsequent league season despite Ogbeche leading the goalscoring charts.
Since then, Ogbeche has won the ISL title twice, first with Mumbai City and Lobera followed by Hyderabad and Manolo Marquez as the striker worked with a few of the best head coaches in the league’s history etching his name in the league’s record books with 61 goals in 89 league appearances.
Sunil Chhetri made his ISL debut for Mumbai City and played a handful of matches for the Islanders across the first two ISL seasons before his heart settled with Bengaluru, and the Blues soon got promoted to the new top-tier of the Indian football pyramid.
In 2018, Chhetri led the Blues to an Indian Super Cup title followed by winning the ISL in the 2018-19 ISL season as the Blues laid down the new standards for the league. Marred by injuries and fitness issues, the veteran striker’s goal contributions have been dwindling over the last couple of seasons.
Pritam Kotal made his debut for the now-discarded Pune City and went on to play for Kolkata-based ATK in the 2016 ISL season. For two seasons, the experienced full-back represented the then-known Delhi Dynamos before once again signing for ATK before the start of the 2019-20 ISL season.
Kotal went on to captain the team when it was known as ATK Mohun Bagan, and the right-back has always been a shrewd operator helping his side win the 2019-20 and the 2022-23 editions of the coveted league.
Kotal signed for Kerala Blasters before the start of the 2023-24 ISL season and after starting more than 150 ISL matches for several clubs, Kotal finally made a substitute appearance in the league when he was introduced off the bench against Chennaiyin making his debut in the Southern Derby after playing several Kolkata derbies over the course of the last few seasons.
Football’s next half
In 2019-20, the Asian Football Confederation recognised ISL as the top-tier league of the country after several years of deliberation as a roadmap was laid down by the All India Football Federation in consultation with the Asian Football Confederation to start promotion and relegation of the league within a couple of seasons which was further given a two-year extension owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The 2023-24 Indian Super League season started with 12 teams as Punjab became the first team to be promoted from the I-League to the ISL starting the promotion-relegation cycle as promised by the roadmap.
The Franchise Fee charged by the FSDL remains a big issue to resolve in the next few years as Pune City already buckled down under the pressure of paying the franchise fee, salaries of overseas players, domestic players, support staff, and maintaining the club’s facilities all year round with Hyderabad seemingly going down the same road in the next few months.
While several other club owners have agreed in the past that the franchise fee model is tough to sustain but it also remains a necessary evil as the franchise fee accumulated from all franchises is used for better marketing of the league which in turn brings the viewers and the cash flow along with it.