Kerala, Kolkata Kick Off ISL Season 4

Defending champions ATK and Kerala Blasters, who lost to the rechristened unit in last year’s final, will start the proceedings at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the venue for the 2016 final.

Now considered the country’s top-tier league, the winner of which will get a direct spot in the AFC Cup, it remains to be seen if it is able to sustain the interest and momentum generated by the FIFA U-17 World Cup that India hosted last month.

Two more teams have been added this season – the brand new Jamshedpur FC, backed by the Tata group, and Bengaluru FC, making the switch from the I-League. The most important change in the league is that it has done away with the requirement of mandatorily signing of a marquee.

The rule, even though it brought the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and Roberto Carlos to India, could not add to the quality of the game with most well past their playing days. And as the focus has shifted to nurturing home-grown talent, teams are required to have at least six Indians on the field.

Kerala, Kolkata kick off ISL Season 4

While more Indian players will take the field, off it foreign coaches still dominate with no team having an Indian manager. Prominent among them is Teddy Sherringham, the 51-year-old coach of ATK. Sheringham welcomed the new player restrictions, which follow a period of unaccustomed success for India after they qualified for the Asian Cup for only the fourth time. He moved to India from unglamorous English fourth-tier side Stevenage.

Packed stadiums in India, considered one of football’s new frontiers, drew him to the ISL. “I was initially sceptical and asked myself whether I needed to come all the way to India to manage,” he said. “But then I spoke with people — Steve Coppell of course and even (former Kerala player-manager) David James and they all had good things to say.”


Rene Meulensteen expects his Kerala Blasters team to play incisive one-touch attacking football to break through the wall of ATK’s defence. The Dutchman, known for his technical coaching, hinted that he will apply the same methods in Kerala that he has always believed in: delete needless touches and play a fast brand of football that creates spaces to score.

ATK will be without their star signing Robbie Keane and will also have to deal with a loud home crowd. Coach Sheringham, though, will take it in his stride having once played for Manchester United. “It’s what every boy, every player, every manager dreams of — to play in front of 60,000 fans. They won’t be supporting us tomorrow but we’ll know we’re doing great if we can keep them quiet.”

The match will be a battle of one of the strongest home sides against one of the finest away sides. The Blasters won six home matches in a row last season, while ATK won four consecutive on the road and were the only team to beat them in Kochi.

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