The emergence of the Indian Super League (ISL) may have given football bosses sleepless nights vis-a-vis its long-term sustainability along with I-League, country's premier football league, but fans have clearly given a thumbs up to the tournament.
With IMG-Reliance and Rupert Murdoch's billions, the heavily marketed event is today among the most loved sporting properties in the country.
Though profitability of individual franchises and the organizers may still be too early to discuss, the ISL's great success for now has been its ability to draw fans to stadiums across the country in large numbers.
The inaugural edition of the tournament surpassed expectations of many, as the potent mix of Bollywood bigwigs, cricket gods and corporate titans was able to reinvigorate the Indian football audiences.
Celebrated football legends, no less than Zico and Alessandro del Piero, helped attract generate initial interest in the ISL that was sustained through the course of two months with exciting action on the pitch.
With the second installment of this unique football tournament due, the anticipation is palpable especially with the surging demand for tickets.
Interestingly, a lot of changes can already be seen in terms of how franchises have approached the second season. The difference was evident from the auction, an indication that team think tanks armed with experience of the previous years have become a lot wiser.
Player selection was well thought of, with owners choosing a prudent and pragmatic method of bidding.
Another fascinating trend that emerged this season has been that of how franchises have structured their squads.
Unlike football leagues around the world, teammates and management of ISL franchises are together for only three months of the year. Players and managers have about a month’s time to prepare for the hectic tournament.
With time constraint, managers need to be efficient in permeating their philosophy to the last player in the team. Indian players often find it hard to converse with the foreign coaching staff, which is why ISL franchise managers have a tough task at hand.
In order to overcome this problem, almost all franchises have built their squads around a core group of foreign players of a particular nationality.
Managed by Zico, FC Goa have a distinct Brazilian flavor to their side. Last year’s semi-finalists have Jonatan Lucca, Leonardo da Silva Moura, Elinton Sanchotene Andrade, Reinaldo Da Cruz Oliveira, Luciano Sabrosa and most notably World Cup winner Lucio from the Selecao.
Like Goa, Chennaiyin FC too have opted for a mix of Indian and Brazilian talent. Representing the Samba nation in the South Indian side are stars from last season - Bruno Pelissari and Elano Blumer along with new boys Raphael Augusto, Eder Monteiro Fernandes and Mailson Alves
Up north, Delhi Dynamos also seem to have reposed their faith in the flamboyant South Americans. Player-manager Roberto Carlos is inarguably the biggest name in the tournament this time around. The greatest left-back of his generation has countrymen Anderson Sebastiao Cardoso, Gustavo Marmentini dos Santos and Vinicius Ferreira de Souza for company in the capital.
Defending champions Atletico de Kolkata have retained Spanish head coach Antonio Lopez Habas, who has injected his squad with players he’s most comfortable with. Moreover, Kolkata’s partnership with Atletico Madrid means a strong Spanish presence in the franchise was inevitable. Juan Jesus Calatayud Sanchez, Jose Luis Espinosa Arroyo, Jose Miguel Gonzalez Rey, Borja Fernandez, Jaime Gavilan Martinez, Javier Lara Grande and Valmiro Lopez Rocha make up the Spanish contingent at Kolkata.
FC Pune City replaced their manager with former Manchester City assistant manager David Platt. Steve Simonsen, Nicky Shorey, Roger Johnson and James Bailey therefore are part of a core English group at Pune.
Sachin Tendulkar’s Kerala Blasters have two Englishmen – Peter Taylor (head coach) and Trevor Morgan (assistant coach) – at the helm of affairs. Naturally, the duo has opted for a team composition dominated by Britons like Stephen Bywater, Marcus, Williams, Peter Ramage, Antonio German, Chris Dagnall and Sanchez Watt at Kerala.
Two teams that have bucked this trend are Mumbai City FC and North East United FC. Both these franchises have perhaps built their teams around a core of Indian players, staying true in sense to the motto of the ISL.
Last season, Mumbai’s Freddie Ljungberg alluded to the fact that Indian players were not on the same wavelength as their foreign counterparts on the pitch. He felt the Indian players delayed release of the ball by a couple of seconds and lacked a strong ability to read the game.
Perhaps this was a common observation by many. Which is why most managers have recruited key players from their native countries.
Football, as they say, is about synchronicity. Hence, ISL franchises appear to be treading a path of efficient communication with managers opting for a footballing culture familiar to them as part of their respective team’s core essence.