“Football had largely become a sofa sport in India – fans sitting at home watching and debating about European leagues rather than going out to watch Indian players. ISL, however, managed to turn these couch potatoes into stadium-goers”.
18th of December, 2016- It was a nail- biting climax to a wildly unpredictable season. For the first time in an ISL final, a penalty shootout was needed to decide the Winner of ISL Season Three. Former FIFA boss Sepp Blatter had once called the shootout ‘a tragedy.’ Atletico de Kolkata didn’t have to endure the pain of it as they scored one more than the three successful attempts Kerala Blasters managed of the five to lift their second ISL title. For the second time, Kerala Blasters reached the final of the ISL only to finish second — incidentally, both the times, it was Atletico de Kolkata who landed the knockout punch.
It seemed that the JLN stadium in Kochi had turned yellow with the massive support that Kerala Blasters received. The average attendance from the Kerala Blasters during their home matches remained approximately 49k. They were not disappointed as they were treated to a colorful closing ceremony and some awe inspiring football.
When the Canadian hotshot forward, Hume, missed his penalty during the shootout against Kerala Blasters in the ISL finals, the crowd erupted. And then, there was a crucial save from Atletico de Kolkata custodian Debjit Majumdar to deny Cedric Hengbart. Indian midfielder Jewel Raja, who, despite picking up plenty of Indian team caps, is not very much celebrated, took the decisive penalty for Kolkata and converted it, leading his side to clinch the trophy. Marcelinho Pereira, the 29 year old Brazilian footballer from Delhi Dynamos took home the Golden Boot award after scoring a total of ten goals in the league.
Two of the country’s own sons representing its favourite sport also had a hand in the proceedings. Atlético, co-owned by Sourav Ganguly, had beaten Kerala Blasters, co-owned by Sachin Tendulkar. Great friends on and off the field, they were filmed hugging even after the result. Bollywood celebrities mingled with the players as the partisan crowd cheered and clapped in Kochi on Sunday night. It was, all in all, a tremendous day for Indian football.
Football’s flashier cousin cricket had so firmly footed its root into Indian homes that people, despite their love for football, never got a chance to show that due to lack of awareness and opportunity. However, ISL was a turn-round as it shattered old biases, rejuvenated the dormant love for a sport and recaptured the imagination of the football fans around the country. Indian Super League, a revolutionary step in a country like India surprised everyone as it managed to become the fourth largest league in the world. The average attendance of ISL across its three seasons is 24,357, which is lower only than the Bundesliga, the Premier League and La Liga. It’s worth repeating: it is the fourth biggest league in the world! Bigger than France, than Italy, than Brazil, than Argentina and China – countries that have an established football tradition.
An attempt has been made here to revive the love for a game marginalised by other sports and the organisers have done everything possible to further improve and expand this league. It is very difficult to break through the high walls of hierarchy, so the only way to enhance football in India was the commercialization of this sport- the promotion of the sport through media, corporate world and the government. At large, cricketers and actors showed active participation to add to the popularity of the league.
Embracing the modern sport fan’s need for constant interaction, organisers went large on digital media too. The ISL site had 16 million online video views through the course of the second season. Its online channel registered 28.7 million visits. On social media it recorded more than 1.8 million conversations on Twitter and Facebook, 10 billion page impressions and 275,000 registered members.
The long-term desire was to get India back on to the world stage via better infrastructure and learning from seasoned professionals from Europe and Latin America. The All India Football Federation’s secretary, Kushal Das, said: “The standard of play was high and it helped the Indian players to do well too by playing with international players and learning from top coaches. It has improved football infrastructure. It was a success on all fronts. ”Besides making football popular again, one of the most important things the ISL managed to do was to infuse confidence into the players. As Ganguly said, “I am happy that an Indian boy scored today’s winner. That is what it is all about. It is very pleasing to know that the Indian players are being watched by the world.”
The ISL got a lot of it right: an eight-team format centred in hotbeds of football interest; a round-robin contest ending with play-offs for the title to avoid tedium or one club domination; revamped stadiums with proper facilities; sponsorship to enable ticket prices to stay low; a new level of broadcast professionalism; and the right level of stardust. Through the course of three seasons, it has definitely become a hit!