January 17, 2024


Has the Indian Super League (ISL) helped Indian football?

In a cricket-crazed country like India, other sports often have to battle it out for second place. While sports like tennis and hockey have had their time in the limelight, nothing comes close to cricket. Not even the beautiful game. Football, often considered the world’s most popular sport, has struggled to gain a significant foothold here.

The formation of the Indian Super League (ISL) was meant to usher in a footballing revolution. Somewhat modelled after foreign leagues, the goal was to raise the sport’s standing and develop new talent for the national stage. The ISL is now in its 10th year. Has the tournament ushered in the necessary changes, or is it too early to judge?


Like most things in India, football has a colonial connection. It was introduced by British soldiers. In the early days, only army teams participated and played. Gradually, it began to spread. The first club established was Calcutta FC in 1872. The Indian Football Association was formed in 1893, but its board members weren’t Indian.

West Bengal, and in particular, Calcutta, became a hub of sorts for Indian football. Other clubs that cropped up at the time were Mohun Bagan and Sovabazar. Tournaments began to form, like the Trades Cup, The Cooch Behar Cup, and The Durand Cup. 1911 marked a turning point as Mohun Bagan won the IFA Shield, beating the East Yorkshire Regiments. The victory assumed greater significance since it came during a time when freedom from British rule was gaining traction.

This win spurred more clubs and tournaments and led to the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) formation in 1937. The AIFF grew in stature as it secured affiliation from FIFA in 1948 and was one of the founder members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 1954.

1950 was a turning point – India had the chance to play in the FIFA World Cup. Things didn’t turn out as planned since the AIFF declined the invite for monetary and other reasons. Part of it was India couldn’t afford to send the players to South America, and the Olympics had a bigger profile.

While India continued to participate in international and regional tournaments, club football began to take off in the 1970s thanks to the popularity of Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, and Mohammedan Sporting Club with big fan bases.

There was a hunger among fans, players, and others to see something different for football in India. There was the domestic AIFF I-League, but some saw more potential. Foreign clubs had big fan bases here, and many saw India as an untapped market for sponsorships and commercial opportunities. Abroad, football sponsorships garnered millions of dollars. A partnership between the sports management company IMG Worldwide and Reliance Industries pushed the idea of a new domestic league forward. In the afterglow of the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) success, a similar bidding process led to the formation of eight teams/cities. The club owners are an expected mix of businesspersons, Bollywood superstars, and others.

The ISL’s first three seasons went on without official sanction from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and FIFA. Before the 2017-18 season, the league expanded to 10 teams, increased the schedule to six months and earned AFC recognition. Following this, FIFA also recognised the competition.

As the years went by, the ISL was buoyed by strong television ratings and better-than-expected attendance. As the ISL’s 10th year is ongoing, has the high-profile tournament been a net positive for Indian football?

VIEW: Need to look at it long-term

If Indian football had problems, and they sure do, one league couldn’t solve them. Certainly not overnight. The ISL was formed in part to bring new blood and money into the Indian footballing landscape in the hopes that it would raise the sport’s stature. In the initial few seasons, there weren’t many Indian top goalscorers. Apart from high-profile names like Sunil Chhetri, other Indians have seen their stock rise.

While there’s a mix of foreigners and Indians in the teams, more Indians have gotten chances to take the field over the years. In 2014, the official player of the match was an Indian 17 times. In 2022-23, that number was 47 across 111 games. The ISL has made clubs realise the importance of a talent pipeline. Investments in scouts at ISL clubs have seen talented youngsters like Lalengmawia Ralte and Thoiba Singh come to the fore.

All this led to a couple of things on two fronts. First, ISL is becoming the most-watched football league in India. Some analysis showed it enjoyed a larger audience than the English Premier League. In the 2021 season, it reached a record of over 130 million viewers, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). Second, with better talent comes better chances of success on the national and international stage. The Indian Men’s team won the Intercontinental Cup in Odisha and the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship.

COUNTERVIEW: Hasn’t changed things much

There has certainly been progress in Indian football. However, one glaring issue, among many, that has continued to flare up is inadequate infrastructure. Former East Bengal FC coach Stephen Constantine criticised the state of practice pitches and inadequate lighting during the Super Cup in Kerala. The ISL is considered the premier football league in India. However, its attendance and popularity pale in comparison to the IPL.

Among those who aren’t convinced by the ISL is men’s national team coach Igor Stimac, with concerns about its standards and competitiveness. He criticised the league’s format and timeline, calling for a longer season with more games. More playing time is necessary and a truncated season doesn’t bode well for the national team. Foreign leagues have more teams with promotion and relegation as teams fight for the top spot and try not to get relegated.

The ISL was meant to usher in a revolution of the beautiful game in India. However, it’s not done much. Such a high-profile league is supposed to have trickle-down effects on the grassroots. That hasn’t happened. The Santosh Trophy’s decline was seen by some as a bad sign for nurturing upcoming talent. The ISL had the opportunity to form a complete footballing ecosystem at all levels. The failure to increase mass participation is perhaps its biggest missed opportunity.

Reference Links:

  • Indian Football History – Sportskeeda
  • How the ‘Indian’ was gradually put in the Indian Super League over nine years – ESPN
  • ISL, its impact on Indian football and the value of its media rights – CNBC TV18
  • Indian Super League emerges as second-most searched sports league in India – The Economic Times
  • Santosh Trophy: Where Indian Football’s History and Its Future Reside – Newsclick
  • ISL is Not Good for Indian Football and its Future: National Coach Igor Stimac – Newsclick

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) The Indian Super League (ISL) has helped Indian football.

b) The Indian Super League (ISL) hasn’t helped Indian football.


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