With a sense of deja vu, the Indian Super League 2021-22 season kicks off here on Friday with a big-ticket clash between ATK Mohun Bagan and Kerala Blasters. Like in the last season, the three venues in Goa — Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Margao, Tilak Maidan in Vasco and GMC Athletic Stadium in Bambolin — will host the first phase of the ISL which runs till January 9.
This is in sync with the demands of hosting events in the COVID era. However, what is going to be different this season is the biggest rule change in the league since its inception in 2014, which can have a significant impact on the national team. The season will see teams playing with a minimum of seven local players plus a maximum of four foreigners in the XI.
The league will witness an increase in local players’ on-field participation, thanks to a new set of guidelines that mandate clubs to field a minimum of seven domestic footballers at one time from the previous six.
A rise in the number of Indian players means one spotless for foreign stars which will now be capped at four. The cap on foreign players to a maximum of four is in accordance with the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) club competition regulations. The changes gave the clubs the leeway to sign a maximum of six foreign players of which one is required to be from an AFC member nation (3+1). The inaugural edition in 2014 had witnessed a playing composition of six foreigners and five Indian players.
Over the years, the league has gradually increased the spots for Indian players, with ISL 2017-18 having a minimum of six Indian players on the field, which was further increased to seven for this season. On the eve of the tournament opener, ATK Mohun Bagan coach Antonio Habas said his team will play their own game against Kerala Blasters but will go into the field with nothing but respect for their opponents.
ATK Mohun Bagan will look to maintain their winning record against the Blasters, having defeated them twice last season. Their opponents are a revamped unit and Habas’ men will have to bring their ‘A’ game to the table if they are to start the season with all three points. In his second managerial stint with the Kolkata-based side, Habas will look to go one step further this season after his team lost in the final to Mumbai City FC last year.
On the other hand, Kerala Blaster FC head coach Ivan Vukomanovic will not let history bog down his side. The Blasters have come up against ATK Mohun Bagan twice in their history and lost on both occasions but will look to be on the right end of the result on Friday.
This time for the first time 23 Malayalee players are on the field
The first whistle will be blown tomorrow for the new season of the ISL. Though the Kerala Blasters are the focus of the Malayalees, the Malayalee football fans will be very interested in the overall performance of the Malayalee players in the league. When all the teams announced their squads this time, 23 Malayalee players were in the squad list. Last time there were only 15 Malayalee players in the squad.
Of course, most of them are in the Kerala Blasters. Seven Malayalees are playing for the Kerala Blasters this time. These four were with the Kerala Blasters last season as well. Defender Abdul Haque, midfielders Sahal Abdul Samad, Rahul KP and Prashanth have been with the Kerala Blasters since last season. The other Malayalee players in the Blasters are youngsters Bijoy, Sachin Suresh and Sreekuttan.
There are six Malayalee players in North East United. VP Zuhair and Mashoor Sharif have been in the North East since last season. Apart from them, other Malayalee stars are Gani Nigam, Mohammad Irshad, Justin George and Mirshad Michu.
There are three Malayalee players in Bengaluru FC. Along with Ashiq Kuruniyan and Leona Augustine, young goalkeeper Sharon has been named in the senior squad. They were also in the Bengaluru FCISL squad last season.
Chennai have two players. Striker Joby Justin and youngster Johnson Mathews are in Chennai. Along with FC Goa, youngsters Nemil and Christy are also Malayalee players. Everyone has high hopes for Nemil Muhammad. Jamshedpur has goalkeeper TP Rehnesh and center back Anas Edathodika. Young sensation Abdul Rabeh is the only Malayalee actor in Hyderabad.
Sahal Abdul Samad