Photo Credits: ISL
The ninth season of Indian Super League concluded with ATK Mohun Bagan crowned champions at Nehru Stadium, Fatorda on Saturday. It was a season again dominated by City Group-owned Mumbai City FC as Des Buckingham's men won the League Winners Shield beating competition from defending champions Hyderabad FC. Not only did the Islanders become the first team to win the League Winners Shield twice, but they also created numerous records on the way, notching up an unprecedented 46 points in the 20-game league, the longest winning streak of 11 games, longest unbeaten streak of 18 games and most goals (54) in a season.
However, despite being the most dominant team among the 11 sides, Mumbai City were unable to book a berth in the finals of the league as they were knocked out by another standout team of the season, Bengaluru FC. The Blues made a remarkable turnaround under coach Simon Grayson after they had limped to the ninth position, winning only three of their first 12 matches. Sunil Chhetri, reduced to a role of an impact substitute this season, and his teammates then went on a 10-game winning streak, including a 2-1 upset of the marauding Mumbai City, before they edged the Islanders on penalties in the second leg of the semifinals to book the finals berth.
Meanwhile, ATK Mohun Bagan overcame mid-season slumps to reach peak form at the business end to enter the playoffs and got the better of holders Hyderabad FC in the other last-four clash. While the Mariners' entry into the final was not as surprising as that of Bengaluru FC, Juan Ferrando's team did well to overcome the absence of key players Joni Kauko and Florentin Pogba due to injuries to reach the summit clash. The ninth season of the league with an expanded six-team playoffs was one of the most competitive ones as FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC missed out on the knockouts. It was a disappointing end for the Gaurs, who under new manager Carlos Pena had maintained a top-six position throughout the season only to slip up when it mattered the most.
The ninth edition will be the last closed season of the ISL if I-League champions Roundglass Punjab fulfill the eligibility criteria and secure their promotion to India's topflight league, expanding it to 12 teams. It is a welcome development for a league which has brought some groundbreaking changes to Indian football. While the pre-ISL era was all about preparing for just a season with players hired to deliver results for a set number of games, the clubs now employ a long-term strategy to achieve their targets. It has meant longer contracts for players, who are getting paid much more by the clubs. They have more facilities and are looked after better by the clubs.
The ISL has raised the profile of football in India but after nine seasons, there are still a number of issues that need to be addressed. One key aspect that needs to be addressed by the league is its youth development programme. It was expected that all teams will have youth academies within 5 years of the launch of the league but barring 3-4 teams, nothing has been done on that front. Also, a 20-game season is too short to create a tangible impact to raise the quality of football in the country. As the top-tier league in the country, ISL needs a longer season with more teams. A longer league means more exposure and playing time for our footballers which will only raise the standard of the game in the country. Despite the great promise of ISL, India are still ranked outside top-100 in the FIFA rankings, a fair reflection of its development as a league.