ISL made football watching a better experience: AIFF boss Kalyan Chaubey

The elite league has survived its share of highs and lows to complete 10 years in 2024

Kalyan Chaubey hands over the winners' trophy to a jubilant Mumbai City FC team on 4 May (photo: ISL)
Kalyan Chaubey hands over the winners' trophy to a jubilant Mumbai City FC team on 4 May (photo: ISL)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The curtains came down on the 10th edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) on Saturday, 4 May, with Mumbai City FC gatecrashing the Mohun Bagan Super Giants party.

Still, the sight of more than 62,000 fans at Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata, showed football is what takes pride of place in the hearts of sports fans in the City of Joy—not just a favourite club jersey.

It was almost an encore from three weeks ago, when there was an identical turnout for the two teams' face-off for the ISL League Shield final. Mohun Bagan had the last laugh for that one.

But two such turnouts in less than a month, involving only one of the Kolkata giants (East Bengal, the other heavyweight, finished at a lowly ninth on the table), shows that ISL is getting the plot right.

And that's exactly what Kalyan Chaubey, president of All India Football Federation (AIFF), had to say.

"See, I have been associated with the ISL for barely two seasons now," said Chaubey, "but I feel that our association with FSDL (Football Sports Development Limited) has been mutually beneficial. There has been major development on at least three fronts — infrastructure, broadcasting and logistics — while the standard of the game has begun to show improvement."

The AIFF supremo is himself a former international goalkeeper, of course, but has been fighting dissent from some of his state bodies of late. But the proof of the pudding is, in this case, in watching it rise!

Speaking to National Herald a day after the play-offs final, Chaubey said: "You just go back to a YouTube clip of an I-League telecast from a decade back and compare it with the turf conditions one sees at any of the ISL venues today.

The erosion of grass near the centre circle as well as where the goalkeepers stand inside the six-yard box — these things have become a thing of the past.

"This allows the players to keep the ball on the ground and make for better passing," says Chaubey, "emboldening the players enough to keep possession of the ball even when chased by rival players."

The result is more sensible football — not to speak of the superior spectator experience with all matches starting at 7.30 p.m. in the evening.

"So office-goers can enjoy the matches, apart from encouraging them to bring their families to the ground, which is a major departure from the past," Chaubey said.

Point taken.

But a major grouse against the ISL is that it has mainly been a playground for overseas professionals. Questions remain on its ability to support as big a pool of quality Indian players.

The elite league, meanwhile, has also ensured that other local leagues — some with a great deal of history — gradually become irrelevant.

Asked about that, Chaubey feels it’s a case of seeing the glass as half full.

"If one looks at the English Premier League, one of the top three leagues in the world, it's been a melting pot for the best talents for years now.

"Even at an aspirational level, the ISL aims to become one of the major professional leagues in Asia. There is nothing wrong in hiring overseas talent, as all clubs are trying to put their best foot forward.

‘’However, at the same time, the league is also the supply line for the national team."

In a recent development, national head coach Igor Stimac called up several members of the ISL as probables for the crucial World Cup qualifier in June, and thus they will be on the radars of the ISL scouts too, Chaubey points out.

"There is no dearth of quality around the country, with the top layer making the cut for the ISL, which has improved quality of life for footballers and eggs them on to give it their best too," said Chaubey.

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