Indian Super League

ISL 4: Focus on Indian players and foreign coaches as revamped football league kicks off

As the cash-rich league comes under pressure to nurture home-grown players, teams are now required to have at least six Indians on the field.

The Indian Super League has slashed the number of high-earning foreign stars for its new season starting Friday but foreign coaches, including ex-England heroes Teddy Sheringham and Steve Coppell, will be in charge of every team.

Indian fans have been used to seeing the likes of Italy’s Alessandro Del Piero, French striker Nicolas Anelka, and Argentine Diego Forlan during the ISL’s first three seasons.

But as the cash-rich league comes under pressure to nurture home-grown players, teams are now required to have at least six Indians on the field.

The veterans are nearly all gone, with Atletico de Kolkata’s Robbie Keane and Kerala Blasters’ ex-Manchester United stars Dimitar Berbatov and Wes Brown among the few who have tasted football’s big-time.

It means the spotlight will now fall on the Indian players, as well as the foreign coaches in the new championship which has been expanded to 10 teams, increasing the season to almost five months.

Among the managers are Sheringham, 51, who joined reigning champions Kolkata in July, and Coppell at new team Jamshedpur, which is backed by the Tata business empire.

Former Real Madrid player Miguel Angel Portugal is at Delhi Dynamos, while Ranko Popovic at FC Pune City has coached in his native Serbia, Austria, Japan, Spain and Thailand.

Sheringham welcomed the new player restrictions, which follow a period of unaccustomed success for 105th-ranked India after they qualified for the Asian Cup for only the fourth time.

“I think it’s a good decision to have six Indians on the pitch at all times and it means Indians getting more chances to play and show their skills,” said Sheringham, whose side start against Kerala Blasters in Friday’s opener in Kochi.

Packed stadiums

Sheringham, who made 51 England appearances between 1993 and 2002, is one of three English coaches in the ISL, along with fellow ex-Manchester United player Coppell and John Gregory at Chennaiyin.

Sheringham 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 skeptical 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.

“Then when I was told we’ll be playing in front of 60,000 supporters, I thought that’s the sort of atmosphere I want to manage in,” said Sheringham.

Six Indian venues saw big attendances, especially for India’s matches, when the country hosted the Under-17 World Cup in October.

Northeast United’s head coach Joao Carlos Pires de Deus was among many who have been surprised by the quality of Indian footballers.

“You ask me if the Brazilians in my team will produce magic... but what is magic? It’s not limited to Brazilians,” said the Portuguese former left-back.

“Even the Indian players in our team are very skillful and can produce a lot of magic. You see the kid with blonde hair in the U17 World Cup team (Komal Thatal) and he was producing magic. So it’s not limited to a nationality,” he added.

‘Football continent’

The ISL, whose city-based franchise format apes cricket’s successful Indian Premier League, has grown in popularity since it was launched in 2014, outstripping the 10-year-old I-League in broadcast ratings.

It has added two new teams, Bengaluru FC, a two-time I-League winner, and Jamshedpur who will be led by Coppell. It has also been boosted by its entry into next year’s AFC Cup continental club championship.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) confirmed in July that the ISL winners will go into the qualifying round.

India, once called a “sleeping giant” by former Fifa president Sepp Blatter, has sought to use the U-17 World Cup to boost its standing. India made a brief appearance in the top 100 footballing nations this year before slipping out again.

Current Fifa head Gianni Infantino said that “India is also not only a football country but is a football continent”, while lauding the country’s hosting of the U-17 World Cup.

The ISL, which is backed by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, will end with a final on March 17 in Kolkata.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.