The 2018-19 season of Indian Super League will kick off on September 29 when two-time champions ATK take on two-time finalists Kerala Blasters at Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. The football league, which is on its fifth year this season, will witness several changes compared to the season 1 that was held in 2014.
From the eight teams that played in season one, Indian Super League has now grown to 10 teams from last year. The rivalries between the clubs have gone a notch higher and there are a lot of roster changes this season. Apart from all these changes, there are certain factors exclusive to the upcoming season that makes us believe that it will be all about football, just football.
We have listed out top 5 such standout attributes of Indian Super League season 5.
Dropping the concept of a marquee player
The previous edition of the ISL had seen marquee players like Dimitar Berbatov, Roberto Carlos, Diego Forlan, Nicolas Anelka, Marco Materazzi and others. These marque player do not come under the established salary cap and add a lot of glitz and glamour to the tournament. However, the new season sees a considerable drop in the concept of the marquee player.
Although teams can still sign marquee players, only Jamshedpur FC exercised this option in season 5 by bringing Australian legend Tim Cahill. As the league enters the fifth season, many teams think there is no need to sign marquee players. Instead, they have started investing more on young Indian players and that shows maturity and seriousness of the league going forward.
Scrapping the gala opening ceremony
All the past four seasons of the ISL started with a gala opening ceremony with Bollywood stars performances while season 5 will drop it. Bollywood celebrities like Priyanka Chopra, Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif and others were definitely crowd pullers in the previous season despite having no connection with football. The pre-match performance was more like an award night.
For the real football fans, the pre-match Bollywood performance was highly perplexing. As the league takes a serious turn this time, dropping the celebrity star performance will attract more fans with real zeal towards football.
Aggressive pre-season campaign
Each ISL team will be participating in the new season after an aggressive pre-season campaign like never before. Four teams went to Spain for pre-season while others travelled to Malaysia, Thailand, and Qatar. Some played with B teams of Barcelona and Villarreal while ATK played against premier league side Fulham. Kerala Blasters went next level by conducting Toyota Yaris LaLiga tournament with Girona FC and Melbourne City FC.
Even after coming back from the foreign pre-season outing, the teams are conducting friendlies with other league clubs including i-league outfits. The seriousness and focus in the pre-season indicate each team will play more mature football than last season.
Longer league duration with three breaks
ISL season 5 will have three breaks, including a massive 40-day break for the AFC tournament which will be held in UAE. After the tournament begins on September 29, the first break will be between October 8 and October 15 during which Indian national team will travel to China for a friendly.
The second break will be between November 12 and November 20 while the third break will begin mid-December and will go on till the first week of January. After the action resumes, the final of the league will most likely be held in mid-March.
Most of the head coaches of the ISL teams have already stated that the breaks and longer duration of the league are good. This will allow the teams struggling in the initial phase of the tournament tweak the squad and plan a stronger comeback in the second phase. However, the league toppers to carry forward the momentum after the break will be challenging.
Long terms strategies- retaining core squad and focusing on younger players
Unlike the previous seasons in which most of the teams formed the squad just ahead of the preseason eyeing just for a season, the recruitment now focusses on long-term goals. Many teams retained a lot of players from the previous squad and added young players in a bid to set up a team for many seasons.
Bengaluru FC retained 12 players and promoted five from the second team for this season while champions Chennaiyin FC has also kept 12 from last season. FC Goa and FC Pune City retained 13, for Kerala Blasters it is 12, for Delhi Dynamos it is 11 while Jamshedpur FC has kept 10.
Most importantly, most of the teams have added many under 23-year Indian players. The exposure for the young footballers playing alongside experienced players is crucial to the quality of league going forward. The change in the approach of setting up team and recruitment focussing on younger players eyes long-term growth of each club.