Dubai: Mikael Silvestre has played in the World Cup, won the Uefa Champions League and the English Premier League five times, successfully shackling the world’s top forwards during his time playing for France and Manchester United.
So, despite being aged 37, surely his successful run as a central defender for the Chennaiyin FC franchise in the inaugural Indian Super League (ISL), which concluded last month, was a straightforward way for him to ease into retirement? Not so, according to the man himself.
“It wasn’t a walk in the park, even for us, the international players,” Silvestre told Gulf News following the conclusion of his short-term deal in India.
The left-sided centre-back was impressed with the organisation and standard of play in the ISL, which looks to have a promising future as football in India bids to emerge from cricket’s long shadow.
The eight-team tournament — which featured big-name players like Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg and David Trezeguet — attracted thousands of fans to stadiums around the country, with many more watching on television. Atletico de Kolkata were the champions after they edged Kerala Blasters in the final, while Silvestre’s Chennaiyin were agonisingly beaten 4-3 on aggregate by Kerala at the last-four stage.
“The standard is difficult to really put a level on,” Silvestre said. “You try to compare it to the Championship or League One [England’s second and third tiers], but because of the disparity of the squads — you have some who have played in World Cups and the Champions League and some who have played only in India, who are only about 150 in the Fifa rankings — so it’s difficult.
“But overall I was impressed by the competition. I think they have kept it simple and intense and competitive and interesting enough for the Indian population to get a grip on.
“I think the competition has a bright future, so I think it will attract more big names and the competition will be a lot harder to win next season.”
The ISL’s compact schedule of 56 regular season matches packed into less than two months, followed by a brief knockout stage, was key to its success, according to Silvestre.
And the former Inter Milan and Arsenal stopper added: “The format of only allowing a maximum of six foreigners kept the competition very even. Before the last game of the [regular] season, there was only two teams qualified and another six could reach the semi-finals, so it was close until the end.
“And it worked because there were great attendances at the stadiums and the atmosphere was good. If the atmosphere is not there, it is very difficult for the players to step up and perform at their top level.
“I didn’t know what to expect, because this was the first edition and the I-League doesn’t attract packed stadiums, except maybe Kolkata and Goa, where they are football crazy. But Chennai, where we played, is a city that had no football teams so it was great to see the response.”
The seeds were sown for Silvestre’s switch to the ISL by his stint as a pundit for Sony Six television during the 2014 Fifa World Cup. He then talked to Pires about the league following his fellow Frenchman’s signing, before a call from Italian World Cup winner Marco Materazzi — Chennaiyin’s player-coach — led to him lining up alongside the likes of Italian legend Alessandro Nesta, ex-Manchester City midfielder Elano Blumer and former English Premier League defender Bernard Mendy in the ISL.
“I was still fit and felt good enough to play,” Silvestre, who left previous club Portland Timbers of the MLS in January 2014, said of his decision to play.
“Marco relied on me a lot to translate from Italian to English so it was good, it was almost like coaching. I had to show constant leadership.”
And his form in the ISL means Silvestre is now looking for options to further extend his playing career, with the Arabian Gulf a possible destination.
“I’m in Dubai for new year with some friends and if I could play another six months in the region that would be good,” he said. “After tasting playing 14 games in two months, I feel pretty fit.
“It’s a possibility [playing in the Gulf] and I’m going to look into it. Otherwise I’ll carry on passing my coaching badges and be ready for the next chapter.”