Whose ISL Is It Anyway? - Was The ISL An Entirely Original Idea?

Before the Indian Super League there was, the Indian Super League.

Hold that thought.

In December 2010, IMG Reliance (IMGR) inked a 15 year/INR 700 crore ($155 million at the time) deal with the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) for the “promotion and development of football” in India. In return for “all commercial rights” of AIFF tournaments, IMGR was tasked to “radically restructure, overhaul, improve, popularize and promote the game of football throughout India, from the grassroots to the professional level”. This included, among other deliverables, moulding the image and raising the profile of the national and domestic teams, along with managing the branding, marketing, and telecast of the domestic tournaments.

IMGR - a JV between IMG and the Reliance Group - also laid out a brief plan to “develop, operate and administer a new professional football league in the country” at the time of signing the contract.

Three year later, they and AIFF, alongwith Star India announced the Indian Super League (ISL), “an unrivalled football championship” aiming to make football “one of the country's flagship sports”. The league was to “revolutionize the sport” by giving Indian football “greater global exposure” and making the country “a name to reckon with in the global arena.”

True to cause, the ISL became an instant hit. Eight teams - Chennai, Delhi, Goa, Guwahati, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune took the field in the first season, all teams playing evening games under floodlights, to stadiums packed with fans adorned in team colors. This was a new feeling for football in India where, except for the I-League Kolkata derby (Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal) and the occasional game in Goa, the sport rarely saw more than a few hundred gathered in the stands. The ISL was also helped, not the least with the presence of yesteryear football legends - known as marquee players - such as Alessandro Del Piero (Delhi), Luis Garcia (Kolkata), Elano & Marco Materazzi (Chennai) and Fredrik Ljungberg (Mumbai). ISL boasted of its own share of Bollywood and cricketing glamour with the likes of Ranbir Kapoor (Mumbai), Abhishek Bachchan (Chennai), and Sachin Tendulkar (Kerala) holding ownership stakes in teams.

At the time, the revolutionary tournament - despite its learnings from other international leagues - was believed to be the brainchild of IMGR, something they had been working on since the mega deal was signed.

But as the ISL took center stage in the years to come, one man looked on in disbelief from four thousand miles away. He could hardly fathom the fact that the ISL was being presented by IMGR as their own idea. All his efforts in coming up with an idea and creating a blueprint to give Indian football a push in the right direction had simply been lifted and presented as someone else’s.

About the Writer

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based journalist. He finds his kicks and his peace when in the mountains, and awaits the next excuse to get there.