The rise of the Indian Super League

From a global perspective, it is weird to know that India did not have a domestic football league at all before 2014. We are talking about by far the most popular sport in the world and one of the most populous countries on the planet.

If you ask Indians, there is nothing strange in it. They are still completely into cricket, the national sport that has flourished all over the country by storm. To India’s credit, they are in the top three nations in the world when it comes to cricket. They are obviously good at it, they like it, and we would be crazy even trying to compare the sport to football. However, does cricket popularity necessarily mean there is no prospect for the growth of football in the country? It seemed so before 2014, but we are now looking at things from a completely different perspective.

When was the Indian Super League founded?

The competition was founded on 21st October 2013, as reported by The purpose was to increase football exposure in the country. The inaugural season kicked off a year later, in October 2014. Interestingly, the Asian Football Confederation has not issued the official recognition of the competition as the continent’s football governing body for the maiden three seasons.

These opening three seasons included only eight teams. As of the 2017/18 campaign, the league expanded to ten teams and received official recognition from the AFC. The schedule was also expanded to six months (usually from November to March) as opposed to three during the first three years.

Can clubs be relegated from the Indian Super League?

Indian Super League is one of the rare world football leagues without the standard promotion-relegation system. Instead, the league grows via expansion, much like the elite soccer tier in the United States (MLS). Eleven teams have started the 2020/21 campaign.

Following the official approval from Asia’s regulatory body for the sport, the Indian teams can participate in continental club competitions like the AFC Champions League and the AFC Cup as of the 2017/18 season.

The most successful teams in short ISL history

ATK, formerly known as Atletico de Kolkata, are the most successful Indian football team. They have won the domestic league three times so far. The team won two of the three inaugural campaigns, including the very first in 2014 by beating Kerala Blasters 1-0 in the grand post-season final. They have done so under the “Atletico de Kolkata” name. After a two-year break. ATK clinched the trophy for the record-breaking third time last season (2019/20) on the back of a 3-1 aggregate win over Chennaiyin.

Speaking of Chennaiyin, they are the second-strongest team in the country. They have won two titles so far, beating the likes of Goa in 2015 and Bengaluru in the 2017/18 campaign. Interestingly, they saw off both rivals with an identical 3-2 scoreline.

The only team that has managed to interrupt the two sides’ dominance was Bengaluru. They came on top in the 2018/19 season thanks to a narrow 1-0 victory over Goa.

The most popular players to have ever played in the Indian Super League

You may doubt the quality of the competition knowing it has not started before 2014. However, the look at the list of players who have left a strong mark in domestic Indian football may intrigue you.

Elano is the most famous player to have played in the league. He arrived at Chennaiyin in the very inaugural season of the Indian Super League (2014). Elano signed a three-month contract worth $1 million which just shows the seriousness (and why not say the strength) of the competition. Although the Brazilian superstar bagged 8 goals in 11 appearances (the league’s top scorer), Chennaiyin failed to make it to the grand final that season.  However, the former Manchester City midfielder returned to Chennaiyin in 2015, helping the team lift their first ISL trophy.

Another player who has left a deep mark in the Indian Super League is Ferran Corominas Telechea, known as Coro. Coro spent most of his career in Espanyol where he made more than 200 appearances, winning Copa del Rey in the process. He also played for the likes of Girona, Elche, and Mallorca in his home country before moving to Goa where he spent three stunning years. Coro bagged 48 goals in 57 appearances for Goa. He clinched back-to-back Golden Ball awards in 2017/18 and 2018/19 campaigns with 18 and 16 goals respectively.

Kalu Uche, who represented Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and who played for the likes of Almeria, Espanyol, and Levante during a rich professional career, is also one of the best players in the history of the Indian Super League. The Nigerian forward has been particularly impressive in the 2017/18 season, netting 13 goals in 15 appearances for Delhi Dynamos.

The best players in the 2020/21 ISL squads

You will find numerous high-quality foreign players at the majority of the Indian Super League teams in the 2020/21 season. Goa’s Igor Angulo has been the most impressive so far, bagging six goals in the opening five rounds of the new campaign. The Spaniard has been one of the most lethal strikers of the Polish Ekstraklasa in the past three years and has clearly kept such form going in the top flight of Indian football. The 36-year-old veteran has made two appearances for Athletic Bilbao back in the 2004/05 season.

Nerijus Valskils, Roy Krishna, and Adam Le Fondre have all been standout performers for their respective teams so far in the season. Le Fondre is probably the most famous name there as he spent most of his career in the Championship. The Englishman used to play for Reading, Cardiff City, Wigan Athletic, and Bolton Wanderers before moving to Sydney ahead of the 2018/19 A-League season. He scored as many as 39 goals in two seasons in the elite class of Australian football. Le Fondre got off to a strong start at Mumbai City as well, netting four goals in five appearances so far.

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