There is a distinct buzz in the air among India’s football fans as the Indian Super League (ISL) gets under way on Friday in Goa, the western Indian state of sunny beaches and the beautiful game. In an year when the Indian Premier League had to be shifted overseas due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, the organisers have scored major brownie points by sticking to a single state as the venue - and of course without fans - a template which has been followed by the major continental leagues.
Now in it’s seventh year, there is a different ring to the ISL this season, as well as an air of expectation. Come November 27, a piece of history will be created when the oldest rivalry in the history of Indian football - that of two Kolkata-based giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal - will manifest in a new avatar of the Kolkata Derby in the ISL. The entry of these two clubs, at one stroke, is expected to add to the eyeballs and brand equity of ISL manifold in view of their legion of fans across the country as well as the Indian diaspora around the world.
The league, a brainchild of the IMG-Reliance in collaboration with All India Football Federation (AIFF), had already carved out new pockets of the game’s followers with teams based in cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kochi or Shillong - but there was always a misgiving that a pan-Indian league is never really complete without these two clubs with more than century-old history and mass hysteria among supporters. The watershed moment came right in the lockdown months when Atletico Kolkata (ATK), three-time champions owned by industrial scion Sanjeev Goenka, acquired majority stakes in Mohun Bagan while East Bengal collaborated with Srei Cements.
The arrival of Robbie Fowler, the 45-year-old Liverpool legend as coach of SC East Bengal, has added to the glamour quotient to the club as well as the league. It had been nothing short of a casting coup by the Kolkata-based club, though ISL has had it’s share of big names in the dugouts before with Brazilian legend Zico adorning the position for Goa FC.
For all his expolits as a footballer, Fowler is relatively new in a coaching responsibility - with first stint as a head coach being with Australian A–League side Brisbane Roar when he guided them to fourth on the league table and a play-off berth before the season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier this year, the world woke up to a NASDAQ billboard at the iconic Times Square in New York, which paid tributes to Mohun Bagan’s ‘131 years of unmatched legacy’. The event trended extensively on social media and even world football’s governing body Fifa took notice and congratulated the club.,
“When you make a billboard of skyscraping prestige and dazzling beauty at Time Square NYC, you know you have become more than just a club. Happy #MohunBaganDay2020 to one of the most passionately supported clubs on the planet,” Fifa had tweeted.
It was the gesture of a US-resident Indian fan of the club as the NASDAQ billboard can be rented on hire, but the ISL surely gives the Big Two a platform to raise the bar of performance for themselves.