ISL returns bigger and longer as stakes grow

ISL returns bigger and longer as stakes grow
From ESPN - November 15, 2017

After a summer of suspense involving the future of Indian football, the Indian Super League is officially back, the fourth season kicking off on November 17 with a virtual rerun of last year's final between Kerala Blasters and ATK in Kochi. With two new teams and a longer season in store, there is plenty on offer for fans to savour over the next five months.

So what's new this time?

There will be 10 teams for the first time in the league's history, with Bengaluru FC (BFC) and Jamshedpur FC entering the fray. Clubs will be allowed to field five foreign players, as opposed to six in previous seasons - four when the ISL champions compete in the 2019 AFC Cup - and the league will run for the longest duration of the four seasons. If 2014 was a short 70-day dash for 61 matches, the following two seasons only stretched nine days longer. This season's league phase, featuring 90 matches, stretches for 108 days, and the playoffs should take anywhere between 10-14 more days.

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"On the face of it, that's a big help. But even so, we have one gap of 10 days, and then three-four games back-to-back," says Jamshedpur FC coach Steve Coppell, who took Kerala Blasters to the final in his debut season last year. Coppell has credited the ISL for the Indian team's recently improved FIFA ranking. "The longer season is better for Indian football, as is the increase of Indian players to six [per match]. There's more responsibility on them now, and that will see them improve as players."

Plenty at stake on the field alone

Former India international Henry Menezes believes the added incentive of playing in Asia will make this the most closely-fought season of all. "The teams must understand that this year onwards, it is a proper football league that they are in. There's also the incentive of getting to play in the AFC Cup in 2019," says Menezes.

"I think the 10 teams need to look at how Bengaluru have conducted themselves since their inception to understand how professional they need to be. Jamshedpur [where the Tata Football Academy has been based since the 1980s] are also going to benefit from having a natural connect with the game, but the rest of the clubs have to realise that in football you will almost never have any operating profit."

"With two more teams, the league is more exciting, but then most things remain the same," says Jamshedpur defender Andre Bikey, who played for NorthEast United in 2015 but missed all of last season after a quadricep injury during pre-season for FC Pune City. "Having more teams does not mean you suddenly make your sessions longer. This is something the manager has to ensure, that players' fitness is better."

The economics of a bigger season

The biggest test this season could be for team owners, with a longer season and an impending need to adhere to AFC licensing criteria. One football expert, who preferred not to be named, believes the requirement to cut the number of foreign players should see a slight drop in expenses for team owners and emphasised the need to stay patient.

"Nobody minds if there's a little hole in the pocket of the shirt you are wearing, but you do not want the entire shirt to be taken off," says the expert. "Globally, it is believed that about 45% of your earnings as a club come from broadcast deals, 15% from gate receipts and the remaining 40% is made up of sponsorships and centralised revenue.

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