ISL provides refuge for English league exiles

By Jim McKenna (@TheNewLibero)

What links Florent Malouda, John Arne Riise and Peter Ramage? Being professional footballers? True, but that’s not quite a strong enough connection. Are they all former Champions League winners? Unfortunately Peter never quite managed to win the trophy he deserved.

Of course, what really links them all is that they’re all taking part in the 2015 edition of the Indian Super League (ISL). Yes, that strange, alien competition that refuses to stay in line with the rest of the footballing world, like a man who stubbornly performs Macarena in a nightclub as the DJ plays Gangnam Style. When it comes to such a different way of playing football, the obvious question remains – what makes players actually decide to move? Unsurprisingly, in such a weird and wonderful league, weird and wonderful stories are prevalent. Stories that are not merely veteran legends seeking a final pay check for very little endeavour.

The Young Prospect
The loan market has thrown up some intriguing deals in recent years. Anyone who saw Falcao struggle over the past season, like a lame foal struggling to cope with the introduction of a football to its life, will have surely pondered why such moves happen. But any fan of West Bromwich Albion wouldn’t be blamed for considering the move of their young talent Adil Nabi the strangest yet.

Nabi, a pacey forward, joined the Delhi Dynamos on loan for the season in August, and will remain for the duration of the 2015 season. For the player himself, the benefits are obvious. Adil has stressed the importance of playing in a new enviornment alongside players of undoubted pedigree; the aforementioned Malouda and Riise, but also onetime Feyenoord star Serginho Greene, as well as Corinthians’ former stalwart Chicão. Furthermore, the prospect of learning from Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos enticed Nabi, as he said, “you can’t say no to someone like Roberto Carlos when he wants you to join their club”.

But there remains a more pressing reason why this loan actually matters. Adil is a man of Pakistani origin, and has spoken about the importance of being a “role model for British Asians” and of the ability to try and show that the contentious history of Pakistan and India has been consigned to the past. So far, Nabi has remained on the bench, but has shown signs of quality when he has appeared on the pitch. The hope now is that the young striker can take his chance and prove why young British players should play abroad, and why young British Asians should play professionally.

The Last Shot at Redemption
In December 2009, Birmingham City appeared to be a stable Premier League team with a very stable Premier League spine. Loanee Joe Hart often took the plaudits for the defensive solidity of Alex McLeish’s side, but in truth the strength of the side lay equally in the defensive partnership of Roger Johnson and Scott Dann. Both earned praise for their defensive performances, and Johnson was identified as a potential player for Fabio Capello’s 2010 World Cup squad.

What followed was nothing short of disastrous. Relegation with Birmingham, followed by a move to Wolverhampton Wanderers that appeared to be a persistent attempt to single-handedly destroy the Midlands side. Two further relegations, fights with team mates, and allegedly arriving at training intoxicated were but a small example of the events that occurred.

Following a short-term deal at Charlton, Roger has arrived at FC Pune City, with the feeling that this is truly the last chance for a player that was once considered one of the brightest defensive talents in English football. The centre-back has spoken positively about the quality of Indian footballers, Pune’s manager David Platt and the average attendances of the ISL. But it is clear that if he is to return to the higher echelons of the English game, or even earn a move to America, he will have to show that he is still capable of the same performances he gave six seasons ago.

Most importantly, Johnson has stressed that he is not in the ISL for fun, stating that “I am going for one reason and one reason only and that is to win the competition.” So far, Pune appear to be one of the favourites to progress into the play-offs, and if Roger Johnson can add an ISL title to his previous honours, he might just be able to end his career on a high note, and attempt to eliminate the memories of Wolverhampton, only this time not with the help of alcohol.

The Returning Hero
Of course, the unusual situation the Indian Super League finds itself in – running for three months every year in the middle of the European season – leads to various unusual situations for players after the December final. For the aforementioned players it is likely to be less confusing: Nabi will return to West Brom and fight for a first-team place, Johnson will probably seek a contract with a Football League or MLS club. It seems highly unlikely that either player will be returning to the next edition of the ISL.

For some, however, the lure of the ISL is so strong that they are returning to the league after playing in the 2014 edition. One of these players is Iain Hume, who has signed for Atlético de Kolkata, the club owned by their namesakes in Madrid. Hume had a successful period with the Kerala Blasters last year, scoring five goals and being second in the goal scoring standings behind former Manchester City midfielder Elano.

Following a period with his first club Tranmere Rovers, Hume has returned to India with the aim of winning the title. Hume’s previous club Kerala were runners-up to his current club Kolkata in the 2014 edition, with Hume being denied on several occasions by Armenian goalkeeper Apoula Edel. Already, there appears to be signs of greater professionalism and investment, with Hume and his team mates training in Madrid in preparation for the start of the season.

For Hume, the simple goal is to keep up last season’s performances, which led to him being awarded the Hero of the League award. Judging by the start of Kolkata’s season, where Hume has formed a potent partnership with Portuguese forward Hélder Postiga, it seems that Hume made the right decision to return to the ISL.

In It For The Money?
One thing that connects all these players is that they have been accompanied by statements asserting that the moves did not occur for financial reasons. Adrian Wright, the man in charge of Albion’s marketing, publicly announced that Nabi’s move “wasn’t us trying to form any kind of strategic alliance that way”. With a newly-founded league, that lacks pedigree and facilities even in comparison to leagues such as the MLS, such accusations will not disappear for a long time.

But if the money is ignored, there remains a collection of interesting back-stories and a unique league with talented players, not to mention games attended by more than 60,000 fans. With this in mind, maybe we should allow ourselves to give the ISL a go – at least we can guarantee that success or failure will be spectacular to watch.

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  1. Bengaluru FC, the AFC Cup final and the rise of football in India – Sandals For Goalposts

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