Bengaluru, 20th September 2018: When the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) kicked off in 2014, not only did it change the Indian domestic football scene but also revitalised the sport in South India.
For long, South India had produced many star footballers who went on to claim national fame. Players like IM Vijayan, T Abdul Rahman, Peter Thangaraj are all household names. But in the 21st century, the region saw the game’s popularity on the wane with many clubs shutting shop.
The ISL, though, has sparked the dormant love for football in these states. Kerala Blasters and Chennaiyin FC command sizeable fan followings which has made witnessing a match in Kochi and Chennai a pleasurable experience. To add to it, Bengaluru FC were added to the ISL in 2017, giving fans from Karnataka representation as well.
The revival in popularity has translated to success on field. Safe to say that, the South Indian clubs have dominated the ISL in all its four editions so far.
Twice in four years, Chennaiyin FC won the competition. Kolkata’s ATK claimed the trophy twice as well, but a South Indian club has always competed for the silverware in the final in all four editions.
In the first season, Kerala Blasters and Chennaiyin FC reached the play-offs along with ATK (then Atletico de Kolkata) and FC Goa. It was the Kochi-based team who reached the final after a thrilling two-legged tie against Chennaiyin FC, before losing at the death against the Kolkata side.
The second season saw Chennaiyin FC reach the play-offs again where they defeated ATK and then put it across FC Goa, at home, in a stunning finale when they scored two goals in the last three minutes.
Chennaiyin were disappointing the next season but the South India quotient was kept intact by Kerala Blasters who found their way to the final. Playing at home, they were heavy favourites, only to be pipped at the post by ATK.
The 2017-18 season saw Bengaluru FC join the two South Indian rivals in the ISL, establishing new rivalries.
The Blues and Marina Machans went on to enjoy stellar seasons as they grabbed the top-two spots in the league stage. Both would go on to make it to the final, setting up a grandstand finish to the competition.
It would be Chennaiyin FC who would ultimately triumph in the battle between the two best sides from the season, underlining the superiority that South Indian clubs have enjoyed in the league.
Now, as the new season beckons, Bengaluru FC, Kerala Blasters and Chennaiyin FC are all front-runners for a spot in the play-offs.
“We have to be mentally tough. You just don’t win it only once but you go back and defend it. The thing that I am trying to instill in my squad is that champions do not win only once. They go and defend it year after year. It is more of a mental thing,” said Chennaiyin FC’s ISL winning coach John Gregory.
Kerala Blasters head coach David James is also eyeing the trophy that slipped away twice from their grasp.
“I think the quality of characters we have in the dressing room, they can deal with things. It’s a wonderful bunch we have together and we have a chance to get our hands on the trophy after missing out twice,” he stated.
By virtue of winning the ISL last season, Chennaiyin FC will becoming the first ISL club to now compete in AFC Cup. Blasters’ coach says the dream is not too far for his side to step in the Asian competitions too.
“The progress ISL has shown from the inception year of 2014 to now has been phenomenal. If first year was a lot of trials and test, season 5 will be a reflection of league settling down. Clubs are aiming for not just for ISL title now but AFC competitions as well.”
ISL has certainly brought forth the South Indian states in football, and one can expect the three southern clubs vying for the coverted trophy in 2018-19 and ahead.