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Indian Super League: An improving competition and A-League threat

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Expert
28th September, 2020
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The Indian economy apparently revolves around a GDP figure of $4.15 trillion. That rather incomprehensible number places it fifth in terms of the largest economies in the world and also makes it the fastest-growing trillion-dollar economy.

For context, Australia’s GDP sits at around $1.98 trillion, a remarkable number considering the population variation. However, with India’s predicted growth seemingly assured on the back of a surging services sector and its reliance on local manufacturing, the gap between the two will almost certainly expand in the short-term future.

India’s limited dependence on exports, a rising middle class and the subsequent high rate of savings that that encourages has seen it emerge as a world economic powerhouse.

That wealth and prosperity see the largest nation in southern Asia loom as a serious threat in world sport off the back of considerable investment in infrastructure and talent.

With a population of around 1.4 billion, there are plenty of eyeballs to watch and masses of arms and legs to compete in sport and leisure activities. Historically, most of those were drawn to cricket and hockey on a consistent basis. However, the changing face of the new and modern India sees many other once minor sports growing briskly.

Football included.

An Indian football fan holds aloft a scarf with the word 'INDIA' printed on it.

(Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

The history of the beautiful game in India reads quite similar to that of the Australian experience. With the game born in the 19th century and the influence of the establishment of the British Raj in 1858 no doubt playing a vital role in establishing interest and enthusiasm for it. India’s first national competition began in 1888 with the Durand Cup.

Similar to Australia, football remained a sport played within local and state competitions for some time. Any efforts to nationalise the game were thwarted, and it was not until 1996 that the National Football League came to pass.

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Eerily similar to the Australian experience, the league was rebranded in 2006 as the I-League. Sadly, despite dreaming big, the attempt to truly professionalise the game fell well short of the vision behind it, and in researching the reasons why, poor promotion and marketing consistently appear as potential reasons.

It sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?

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However, off the back of the burgeoning economy, Indian football was to receive an injection of cash and attention that now appears to likely have triggered its launch into the stratosphere.

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The Indian Super League began in 2014 with six teams, of which Atletico de Kolkata claimed the inaugural title. Frankly, the football was a little comical at times, with India’s domestic players well below the standard required and Peter Reid’s bizarre behaviour as manager of Mumbai City FC consistently providing mirth.

Yet the money available to lure overseas players to the competition was considerable, and when former Spanish international Luis Garcia was announced as the league’s first overseas import in July 2014, the pattern had been set.

Since that time the league has expanded to 11 teams. It still features no promotion or relegation, and at the completion of the 2019-20 season it cited 51 per cent growth in viewership based on the previous season’s numbers.

India’s national men’s team currently sits 101st in the FIFA rankings, yet there has been considerable improvement in its local talent after just six seasons of ISL play, and the acquisition of quality players from abroad continues to accelerate that improvement.

Qualifying for World Cup play in 2022 may well be a bridge too far, yet the money invested in football and the continued improvement in the standard of ISL play could well see India become a prime mover when it comes to Asian Confederation football within the next decade.

Importantly, a host of A-League players have recently been lured away from Australia’s shores, a fact that is destined to only further strengthen the ISL and almost certainly weaken experience and quality levels in the A-League.

Former Wellington Phoenix striker Roy Krishna made the move for the 2019-20 season and knocked in 15 goals for the champions. Krishna played alongside A-League veteran David Williams last season and will be joined by Adelaide born Brad Inman for the 2020-21 campaign.

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A now 34-year-old Erik Paartalu will continue his long association with Bengaluru, nearing 50 matches for the Blues, and James Donachie recently signed for a loan period in Goa, granted by his new club Newcastle Jets.

Joel Chianese will be in search of goals at Hyderabad and Jacob Tratt will slot into the back four at Odisha FC alongside Englishman and former Wellington Phoenix captain Steven Taylor.

With each of the 11 teams permitted to sign a maximum of seven foreign players and 28 slots still potentially to be filled at the time of writing, the above names may not be the full extent of ex-A-League talent on display in India.

They will join 20 Spaniards playing in the league as well as a smattering of Brazilians, and Australia will now become the fourth most represented nation in the ISL.

Now doubt it is exciting times for the players heading abroad, and the openings for young domestic talent to shine in the A-League are abundant. However, should the pattern continue in coming years as Indian football continues to grow, the ramifications for Australia’s A-League could be significant.

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Already assured to spend less this coming season, A-League owners will struggle to hold the talent they want and need. More and more players may well seek new opportunities in India, a place where the competition continues to earn greater respect as each season rolls by.