The ISL has symbolised India’s footballing resurgence as it embarks on the coming season commencing with the clash between Kerala Blasters FC and Bengaluru FC at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi on September 21.
Clash of the Titans:
Head coaches and former league winners like Sergio Lobera (Odisha FC), Owen Coyle (Chennaiyin FC), and Carles Cuadrat (East Bengal FC), along with 2022-2023 ISL League Shield winner Des Buckingham (Mumbai City FC) and 2022-2023 ISL Cup winner Juan Ferrando (Mohun Bagan Super Giant) among others shed light on the league’s growth and their teams’ preparations for the coming year.
Seasoned players like Sunil Chhetri (Bengaluru FC) along with emerging stars such as Chinglensana Singh (Hyderabad FC) and Ishan Pandita (Kerala Blasters FC) spoke highly of the infrastructure development and the exposure that the ISL has provided to help them grow by leaps and bounds from a professional standpoint
Champions & Winners:
Starting off, all eyes will be on the champions of the previous season as they set about in an exciting journey to defend their titles in this campaign. Mumbai City FC displayed imperious form for most parts of the previous campaign, which culminated with them winning the illustrious ISL League Winners Shield and qualifying to the AFC Champions League subsequently.
Later on, Juan Ferrando’s Mohun Bagan Super Giant stamped their authority by emerging victorious in the grand finale against Bengaluru FC and claiming the ISL trophy. Islanders’ head coach Des Buckingham spoke highly of the league improving by leaps and bounds as he enters his third season in the ISL. On the other hand, Ferrando positively touched upon the challenges lying for the coming campaign on the backdrop of multiple international breaks and with his team competing in the AFC Cup as well.
“I was talking to the coaches outside and there is a lot of hype behind this season; obviously with it being the 10th season. It’s my third season here and I think across the clubs, when I look at what the league may have been three-four years ago, and what it is now with how the clubs have set themselves up year upon year, that’s exciting. Because, what you see is the players being able to perform to the levels that we see now. We are starting to see more excitement in the games because of that. It shows why we have been able to showcase what we did last year in terms of our playing style and of course the requisite work taking us there,” Buckingham explained.
“It’s difficult for the players, staff, when you have only two days between matches. But, I am in a big club so when you are the head coach in big clubs and important clubs, you have this problem. You play a lot of matches and try to win the trophies. I prefer to work with the team and train but at this moment I am happy because I am working in a big club and this is very important to be able to prepare for another match within one day. So, it’s a balance.” Ferrando talked about the challenges that come with a longer season.
Chhetri, skipper of Bengaluru FC underlined his intentions of doing everything he can to avoid being benched by head coach Simon Grayson this season. The forward was sidelined from the starting XI for six games last year and he has reiterated that he will be edging to rule out any such possibilities this time around. “I do not like to sit on the bench. I want to be in the first XI of the table tennis, badminton, carom board, chess, I just want to play, man! So, don’t change it, please! The one who is going to decide that is sitting over here (Simon Grayson). Don’t change it, please,” Chhetri said in a light-hearted exchange with his coach.
Return of the old guard
Lobera, who returns to India at the helm of Odisha FC, is admittedly impressed with the project at the club and is looking forward to rewriting history with the Juggernauts after two exceedingly successful spells as FC Goa and Mumbai City FC previously. “Odisha, I think, is a club that is growing every day. I am very happy to be a part of this family. I am here to try to help. The coach is one piece more in this project to try to help the club. When I had a meeting with the owners, I felt like this is a place where I want to work. Hopefully we can grow more and achieve success in both the short and the long term,” the Spaniard said.
Well, Lobera is not the only ex-ISL winner coming back to the league after a brief while away. Scottish tactician Owen Coyle, who handsomely cruised the Jamshedpur FC ship to the ISL League Winners Shield in 2021/22, is now at where it all began for him in India. Coyle has been tasked with turning around Chennaiyin FC’s fortunes this season. He has not been averse to saving a sinking ship as the perfect testament to that was in 2019/20 when he took over the reins of the Marina Machans midway through the campaign and spearheaded them to the final in an incredible fashion. Coyle is hoping to repeat the same and go one step ahead this time around. “Chennaiyin is always a special feeling because there are such good people. We may not be the biggest club in the league but we sure can still be the best. To do that we need a number of things – a lot of things, but the good thing is we know how to get up, and we know how to be champions,” he remarked.
However, a comeback that everyone will be keeping close tabs on will be that of Carles Cuadrat. The Spanish head coach is heading East Bengal FC this season but he first shot into prominence in Indian football with his celebrated stint at Bengaluru FC. Cuadrat had pioneered them to their maiden ISL victory in 2018/19 and is hopeful of repeating those heroics with the Red and Gold Brigade this year.
“It will be an interesting ISL because we will meet a lot of coaches who have been champions in india, be it the champions of the ISL, Federation Cup, Super Cup etc. They already know how to be competitive in that environment, so,that’s great for ISL to have so many champion coaches in the competition” Cuadrat looked at the season ahead. “We’ve been in the ISL for three seasons and things haven’t gone well for the club. We’re here to try to change the dynamics. We have a lot of supporters and a huge legacy to this club. The supporters are having bad times in the last three seasons so it’s hard work for us to improve the performance and to try to get the positive results for the supporters,” he added, signalling a positive reversal of form for the club.
Amidst all the returns, the standout team to watch out for this season will arguably be Punjab FC, who scripted history by becoming the first-ever club to secure a promotion to the ISL by winning the I-League last year. Head coach Staikos Vergetis is confident of his prospects in ISL 2023/24 considering his team’s activities in the summer transfer window.
“We are very happy that we are the team that for the first time in the history of Indian football has been promoted to the ISL. Looking back in the last season, I had a lot of beautiful moments to remember. It was a tough season for us, it wasn’t easy,” Vergatis reflected on his team’s journey so far. He added, “I think we did the correct moments during the summer. We kept 14 players from the successful side this year. Because it is one thing is to be family and to stay together. But in football you cannot keep everyone of them. You have to review the team to improve the quality in the roster. That’s why, apart from these 14 players, we took some talented, very good and experienced foreigners; some very good players from India who we saw are very good when they played in other clubs. We have a team with very good youngster players in Indian football, to whom you hope to help them to be India professional football players in the upcoming years.”
There was palpable excitement for the coming season from the players’ side. They expressed gratitude at the opportunities that the ISL has presented to them and the enhancements it has made in terms of improving infrastructure and even fostering a sense of greater goals and ambitions among the players. FC Goa’s latest recruit Udanta Singh said, “With each season, the league and players are getting better and I am sure that as the players are getting younger, there is better competition, and there is ambition amongst young Indian players. They work harder and also just make sure that they get in better conditions. They will keep getting better as long as they keep working hard.”
Similar sentiments were echoed by Ishan Pandita, who is one of India’s most promising young forwards and has played in Spain for clubs like Pobla Mafumet and Lorca FC before joining the FC Goa ranks in 2020. He has since gone on to have a two-year-long stint at Jamshedpur FC before the switch to Kerala Blasters FC this year. Pandita recalled the star-studded nature of the earlier seasons of the ISL and spoke optimistically of the way the league has evolved over the years. “In its first season, in the ISL we had a lot of high-profile signings and I think we have come a really, really long way now in the 10th season. In terms of the quality of players that we are signing not just for the glitz and glamour of the league but more to develop football in India. The infrastructure has picked up massively compared to when we started. I think overall, it’s growing in the right direction and football has a good future in India,” Pandita said.
Hyderabad FC’s Chinglensana Singh is another player who expressed tremendous gratefulness as the impact that the ISL has had in helping young players like him develop remarkably in their careers. The centre-back debuted in the league back in 2020 but he really came onto his own after moving to Hyderabad FC in 2020. Chinglensana was pivotal in their title triumph in 2021/22 and even progressed to play for the Blue Tigers on the back of his performances in the league. “I think the ISL has done a brilliant job for the last 10 years. When ISL came into the picture, many players came and Indian players developed massively. The quality of players we play with helps the domestic players honestly and you can see that with the result of the national team players,” he said.
However, an important element behind the growth of the ISL has been the unconditional love and support showered by the fans across the country. The previous campaign was almost a carnival with supporters returning back to the stands after two years. It instilled incredible passion and excitement in the games and Jamshedpur FC players Alen Stevanovic and Pratik Choudhari are anticipating a rousing reception from their fans when they host their first home game of the upcoming season against Hyderabad FC on October 5. Stevanovic, who has represented Italian giants like Inter Milan and Torino, places a lot of importance on crowd support and the role it plays in pushing players to give their best on the field.
“It’s crucial. I was lucky to be a part of really big clubs like Torino and Inter Milan and I know how we enjoyed playing and talking about fans and how much they push us. They are like the 12th player, so I enjoy playing in front of great fans and in such stadiums,” Stevanovic said. Choudhari added, “I think it is one of the best atmospheres in the whole country. I love playing over there. It’s always jam-packed and the crowd is amazing. It’s very supporting and fanatic. It gives us an advantage and a huge plus when we have home games because you know, it gives us a boost definitely when we have a full house. We are lucky to have them.”
A set of fans that would be eagerly waiting for the new season to kick off are that of the NorthEast United FC. The Highlanders had a disappointing run last year as they won only once in 20 league matches. It prompted a change at the top-level with the arrival of a new head coach in Juan Pedro Benali. He has started off his stint promisingly, taking his team to the semi-final of the Durand Cup last month. NorthEast bowed out in penalties to eventual runners-up East Bengal FC but Benali explained that the team treated that competition as a preparatory phase for the ISL with a focus on avoiding any kind of injuries.
“We took the Durand Cup as a preparation for the pre-season as it was very important for us, for the player and the staff to know each other, to prepare. We had players that had been in the team or training for a week. Before to win a game or a tournament, I don’t want my players injured because with an injury I would lose the players for two-three months and I am not ready for that,” he said. “I don’t like to lose even cards, imagine the semi-final of the Durand Cup,” Benali added, with his competitiveness coming as music to the ears of the NorthEast United FC faithful.
The tenth season of the ISL kicks off with Kerala Blasters hosting Bengaluru FC at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi on September 21, 2023.
Source: ISL Media