While the entire country is enjoying Indian Super League (ISL) action these days, one must remember India's original football league - the I-league. And though FIFA insists that the I-league is number one priority, the fact remains that in its inaugural year itself, ISL has left the national league far behind. So clearly, there is a lot the older I-league can learn from its younger counterpart.
India's football captain, and undoubtedly Indian football's most recognized face in recent time, Sunil Chhetri is not playing in the ISL. That's because his club Bengaluru FC, the current I-league champions, didn't release their players for the ISL. Chhetri and his teammates would certainly not enjoy being left out of the ISL party. "A player like Sunil must be feeling sad that he can't play in the ISL, he would want to rub shoulders with top foreign players too, I'm sure. But in the future, there maybe a situation where he and the others can also be a part of the ISL", Kushal Das, Secretary General of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), told NDTV.
Chhetri maybe missing, but the fans certainly aren't. Stadiums in most ISL venues have been packed, and television ratings have been encouraging as well. On its opening day, the ISL reached out to a television audience of a whopping 74.7 million. Those numbers are second only to the hugely popular and successful Indian Premier League (IPL). "People in India are watching a lot of football. They watch a lot of EPL, and La Liga, and this year there was huge interest in the FIFA World Cup as well. But they haven't seen much of Indian football. At the end of the day, it's all about the product you are offering. It's the quality of the football. If you give a good product, people are bound to come in and watch", Sameer Manchanda, owner of the Delhi Dynamos team in the ISL, told NDTV.
That's a point the AIFF has missed all these years. Random scheduling of matches, odd timings, and shabby television production over the years means fans have not wanted to watch the AIFF-run I-league, at the grounds, or on TV.
"The I-league has definitely learnt from the ISL. Specially about match operations, getting fans in, and making the event spectator friendly. The I-league clubs definitely need to up their ante. And that's exactly what we want. We want the I-league clubs to get the fans in, and improve the whole tournament. I see a lot of synergies happening in the next few years, with I-league clubs learning operations from the ISL sides. And that's only a good thing for Indian football", said Kushal Das.
In less than a month since it began, the ISL has done what the I-league failed to in close to ten years - getting crowds into stadiums to watch football. That is a very important goal scored. If the AIFF wants to keep the I-league alive, then there's definitely a huge lesson in professionalizing sport to be learnt from the league that has captured India's imagination.