Close on the heels of the Indian Super League’s (ISL) third edition kicking off from Guwahati this year, comes another joyful development for football fans in this region. In the Under-17 FIFA World Cup to be played in India next year, Guwahati will be one of the six venues. This was officially confirmed by a FIFA delegation on Monday last after inspecting the Sarusajai stadium and training facilities at the IGAI training ground, Nehru Stadium, LNIPE ground and SAI Regiol Centre. It will be the first time India gets to host an intertiol football tourment, having outbid Ireland, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan for the honour. There will be 24 teams in the fray in the 2017 edition; earlier winners like Nigeria and Gha have begun to make their mark as footballing tions. The junior World Cup will doubtless be a golden opportunity for fans in the Northeast to appreciate the skills and tactics of the best of budding footballers, their reading of match situations and ability to implement team strategies. So, some of the good work done by Assam in holding the South Asian Games (SAG) earlier this year has paid off handsomely, showcased by the spanking pitch at Sarusajai and some much improved sporting venues. The Northeast always had a diehard footballing spirit, often dormant, sometimes upwelling in heady fashion. One such pleasant phase is unfolding presently, with Northeast United FC zooming to the top of the ISL points table. Its home matches in Sarusajai have been drawing full houses, its legions of fans here are keeping their fingers crossed for a last-four stage entry this time around, after the near miss last year. This John Abraham-owned, youthful home team is playing some of the best football in the tourment; its new Portuguese coach Nello Vingada has made an early impact by packing his midfield with the likes of marquee player Didier Zokora and Katsumi Yusa, while sharpening his forward line in which Nicholas Velez, Emiliano Alfaro and Lallianzuala Chhangte hold the key.
This time around, all the eight ISL franchises have had time to build up and fine-tune their teams in the pre-season, arranging for training and matches abroad to give them exposure. The Bollywood-corporate razzmatazz, high stakes broadcasting and marketing, and foreign players and coaches in ISL have helped bring world-class facilities to selected stadiums. The Sarusajai venue in Guwahati too has benefited, making it fashioble and ‘happening’ for football lovers to be seen (and heard) there. Similar scenes are playing out in ISL venues across the country, so much so, that the country’s apex football body is now planning to ride the ISL wave. In its roadmap to develop football in the country, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is proposing that the ISL be made the country’s premier league next year onward, with the number of participating clubs raised from eight to ten. The existing I-League, in which long-familiar clubs like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Salgaocar, Dempo FC and Bengaluru FC compete — will be remed as League 1 and considered the tier below premier league. There will be a third tier known as League 2, along with a system to promote and relegate clubs on performance basis between League 1 and League 2. However, questions are being asked as to why should the 8-10 ISL teams remain fixed with no proposal for demotion, whether it is acceptable to create an ‘exclusive club’ of wealthy, high-profile franchise owners. Indian tiol football team coach Stephen Constantine is quite gung-ho about Indian players getting invaluable exposure in ISL by learning from foreign coaches and playing alongside top foreign players. For budding Indian footballers to be discovered in numbers, ISL franchises will have to do better than fielding just five Indians in their starting line-ups. It is only when ISL ceases to be pure exhibition, it is only after it is properly grafted and integrated into the footballing structure underneath — that the country can dream of a FIFA ranking far higher than 177 currently. And the club culture really has to grow here if football is to revive, so that ISL’s rallying song ‘Let’s Football’ gets to drive a round-the-year footballing passion that can contribute to a genuine sports culture.