A Decade of Dreams: How the ISL Transformed Football in India
Football is the fastest-growing sport in India, where each and every day its following grows exponentially. As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Indian Super League (ISL), India’s marquee football league, we take a look at how football in India has grown into a great prospect since the league’s formation. From historic milestones to global aspirations, the journey of Indian football is one of determination, ambition, and unwavering passion.
The football landscape in India bears some resemblance to that of the United States of America. Despite not holding the top spot in popularity, football has long been ingrained in Indian society, boasting renowned players such as Sunil Chhetri, Bhaichung Bhutia, and I.M. Vijayan who were household names even before the advent of the Indian Super League (ISL).
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) made early attempts to establish a professionalized football league. In 1996, the National Football League was inaugurated, but it faced a short-lived existence, folding in 2006 and subsequently rebranding as the I-League. While this marked a step in the right direction, it wasn’t until 2013 that football’s popularity in India truly started to surge with the creation of the Indian Super League (ISL).
The Creation of the Indian Super League
The ISL was launched by IMG Reliance (now RISE), Star Sports along with the AIFF. The league’s creation and subsequent growth owe much to the substantial involvement of the Reliance Group and its visionary leader, billionaire, and tycoon Mukesh Ambani, who played a pivotal role as the primary investor in this project.
At its inception, the ISL featured eight teams representing some of the nation’s most prominent cities. Club investors came from a wide range of backgrounds. Kerala Blasters’ primary investor was popular cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar, meanwhile, Bollywood stars Salman Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, and Johan Abraham were joint investors for Northeast United, Mumbai City FC, and FC Pune City. The league also saw significant foreign club investments, with Spanish football giants Atlético Madrid being the first to invest in Atlético de Kolkata. Subsequently, City Football Group assumed majority ownership of Mumbai City FC in 2019, further underscoring the league’s global appeal and ambitions.
The involvement of prominent sports and media figures played a crucial role in enhancing the appeal of the ISL to the broader public. The popularity of the league was also boosted massively through the marquee signings brought into the league, a marketing model used by several other countries around the world. Former Champions League winner, Luis Garcia was the first signing, who joined Atlético de Kolkata. Garcia was followed by a list of start-studded players, which included Robert Pires, Freddie Ljunberg, David Treezeguet, Alessandro Del Piero, David James, and Joan Capdevila.
These high-profile acquisitions effectively showcased the league to the public, drawing fans to the stadiums in anticipation of catching a glimpse of these illustrious footballing stars. This star-studded lineup undeniably added to the allure and excitement surrounding the ISL.
For the first three seasons, the ISL operated without official recognition from the Asian Football Confederation or FIFA. Without official recognition, ISL teams were unable to compete in Asian club competitions, the AFC Champions League, or the AFC Cup. Moreover, until the 2022-23 season, the ISL and the I-League operated as two different leagues. The ISL didn’t even have a promotion/relegation system, which had both its advantages and limitations. On one hand, it provided stability for ISL teams, ensuring they wouldn’t face relegation and the financial consequences associated with it. However, it also presented challenges by limiting opportunities for clubs outside the ISL to ascend to the most popular league of Indian football, even if some of these clubs had long-standing histories in the sport.
Fortunately, after feedback and consultancy from both the AFC and AIFF, both the ISL and I-league merged to form a new football league system in India. This pivotal merger led to the official recognition of the ISL as the premier tier of Indian football, granting ISL clubs eligibility to compete in the prestigious AFC Champions League, the most eminent continental club competition in Asia.
Additionally, this coalition facilitated the synchronization of the ISL and I-League schedules, a development that was not feasible during the early years of the ISL. This synchronization has streamlined the football calendar in India and contributed to a more harmonious and competitive football ecosystem.
Emphasis on Youth Development
As the ISL began to solidify its position as India’s premier football league, it underwent a strategic transformation that extended beyond the field. The league shifted its emphasis away from primarily signing foreign players towards nurturing and promoting the development of homegrown youth talent. This change aligned with the Premier One licensing criteria, which mandates that clubs comply with a set of guidelines to participate in tournaments conducted by the AFC and the AIFF.
In addition to maintaining certain sporting, infrastructural, legal, and administrative standards, the Premier One licensing criteria also encompass financial and administrative factors. The shift towards developing domestic talent was in harmony with these criteria and aimed at fostering a more sustainable and competitive football ecosystem in India.
While the ISL continued to preserve the excitement brought by international talent, it also witnessed the growth of domestic players who began to play pivotal roles within their respective squads. This development was further reinforced by the announcement in mid-2021 of the Reliance Foundation Development League. This league not only provided ISL clubs with a platform for youth development but also opened its doors to other youth academies, facilitating the cultivation and nurturing of U-21 players. It laid a crucial foundation for youth football in the country, aligning with the broader vision outlined in the All India Football Federation’s strategic roadmap, Vision 2047.
This visionary move signaled the ISL’s dedication to fostering talent at the grassroots level, promising to shape the future of football in India by nurturing the stars of tomorrow and reinforcing the league’s role in the growth of the sport, ultimately working towards India’s emergence as a powerhouse in Asian football by 2047, the country’s centenary year of independence.
Source: All India Football Federation (AIFF)Vision-2047-The-Indian-Football-Strategic-Roadmap-2023-2047
Present Day League Structure
As mentioned earlier, the fusion of the ISL and the I-League marks a significant structural transformation in Indian football. The league has transitioned to a more traditional format, introducing the promotion-relegation system commonly found in top footballing nations worldwide. This shift provides I-League clubs with the chance to ascend to the premier tier, offering them enticing financial incentives and increased exposure.
Furthermore, the ISL has pursued an ambitious path of expansion in recent years, ushering in new franchises and extending its presence to diverse regions nationwide. These expansions have effectively broadened the league’s geographical footprint, introducing football to promising regions with untapped potential.
The league’s progress and development in recent years are evident in the remarkable accomplishments of its clubs. Notably, FC Goa and Mumbai City FC have consistently led the way in the ISL, both securing coveted positions in Asia’s premier continental competition, the AFC Champions League. Mumbai City FC, in particular, is poised to put its skills to the test against formidable Saudi giants Al Hilal in this year’s edition. This clash promises to be a thrilling spectacle for Indian football enthusiasts, allowing them to witness their local heroes go head-to-head with some of the most renowned names in world football.
Impact of Global Leagues on Indian Football
The impact of global football leagues on Indian football is undeniable. While the Indian Super League (ISL) has risen to prominence, the allure of global football leagues remains a powerful force. These leagues, including the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Champions League, and the Saudi Pro League, have always enjoyed a tremendous fan following in India. Their influence extends beyond mere fandom.
For many young Indian players, global leagues serve as a beacon of hope and aspiration. Dreaming of playing in renowned leagues like the Premier League or La Liga, these players are driven to achieve greatness, motivated by the success stories of their international counterparts. Icons like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé, and Kevin De Bruyne are adored figures in India, with their every move closely scrutinized and celebrated.
Moreover, the presence of global leagues has sparked initiatives for development within the Indian football landscape. Local authorities and clubs have ramped up their efforts in grassroots development programs and infrastructure enhancements to bridge the gap between domestic and international standards.
The impact of global football extends beyond the professional level. The Next Gen Cup, officially known as the Reliance Foundation Premier League Next Gen Cup, exemplifies the collaboration between the Premier League, Indian Super League, and South African Premier Division. This youth football tournament, organized as part of the Premier League Youth Games initiative, showcases the dedication to nurturing young talent in India.
Youth football teams from these countries have the opportunity to compete against each other and develop their skills in a diverse and competitive environment. Beyond the competition itself, this tournament also represents a broader vision for the future of football in India. It aligns with the country’s goal to become a prominent force in international football by nurturing and harnessing the potential of its young talents.
Women’s Football in India
Women’s football in India has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years, experiencing a surge in popularity and recognition. Historically, the focus in Indian sports was predominantly on men’s cricket, with women’s football often relegated to the shadows. However, the landscape started to shift in the early 21st century as initiatives were taken to elevate the status of women’s football.
Some notable players include Bala Devi and Aditi Chauhan, who are most well-known for their stints at Rangers and West Ham, respectively. These players have become trailblazers for Indian women’s football, showcasing their skills on the international stage and inspiring a new generation of female footballers.
The Indian Women’s League (IWL), launched in 2016, has played a pivotal role in reshaping women’s football in the country. It emerged as the premier women’s professional football league in the Indian football league system, providing a platform for female footballers to showcase their skills at a national level. The IWL has not only facilitated the development of women’s football but has also expanded the player pool for the Indian national team. Moreover, the league champions now earn the privilege of competing in the prestigious AFC Women’s Club Championship, offering a chance to test their mettle against top clubs from across Asia.
Beyond professional leagues, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has taken significant steps to promote women’s football at the grassroots level. Initiatives such as the Golden Baby Leagues have been introduced to encourage young girls to embrace the sport from an early age. These efforts have led to a surge in participation and interest in women’s football, marking a promising future for the sport in India.
The growth of women’s football can also be seen in India through India’s hosting of the U17 Women’s World Cup in 2022, which saw talented players from all over the world participate in youth football’s biggest competition.
This strategic shift ensures a sustainable talent pipeline, paving the way for Indian players to venture into top leagues worldwide. The dreams of Indian footballers representing their nation on the grand stages of the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, and other prestigious competitions are gradually transitioning from aspirations to achievable milestones. With investments, grassroots initiatives, and a growing global footprint, the sport in India is poised for gradual but substantial progress. The path ahead may have its challenges, but the potential for success and recognition on the global stage remains undeniable.
As we look to the future, the trajectory of Indian football is on a remarkable upward curve. With investments, grassroots development, and increased global exposure, the sport is set to thrive. The dreams of Indian football fans, players, and enthusiasts are becoming more attainable with each passing day. The horizon is bright, and India’s journey in the world of football promises to be a captivating and inspiring one.
To learn more about football in India, please check the following links below:
Indian Super League-About Us
AIFF Vision 2047