The third season of Indian Super League football got underway on October 1, 2016 with home side North-East United FC taking on Kerala Blasters FC in the inaugural game. Earlier, the 2016 season was given a rousing start with a glittering opening ceremony at Guwahati’s Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium. While Bollywood divas Jacqueline Fernandez and Alia Bhatt entertained the fans with their dance performances, the main players gathered on stage for the real show. They included; Nita Ambani, ISL Founder and Chairperson; team owners; John Abraham, Sachin Tendulkar, Ranbir Kapoor, Abhisek Bachchan, MS Dhoni and others. Besides, the organizers also invited Rio Olympic silver medalist PV Sindhu for handing over the ceremonial ball to Ms. Ambani, who officially opened the new season. With the opening ceremony over, North-East United FC made a winning start to the new season by defeating Kerala Blasters 1-0.
NorthEast United FC’s Japanese recruit Katsumi Yusa made a great debut for his new club in the 2016 season by scoring the winning goal in second half. Around the time that ISL entered its third year on Saturday night; hundreds of football games were being played in other football leagues across the world. A couple of them, which found broadcast space on Indian television channels at the same time were; the La Liga Round-7 match between Granada and Laganes and an English Premier League game between Liverpool and Swansea. A chance peak on the latter two games was enough to see the tremendous qualitative difference in levels of club football in Europe and ISL. The reasons are obvious. ISL is in its early days. In cricket crazy India, football culture is absent and facilities are poor. There are 20 stadiums in Spain and nearly as many teams. In the English Premier League too, 20 major stadiums are spread across England for the same number of teams. These two major leagues in Europe employ the best players from all over the world at enormous costs and matches are played for months together. In sharp contrast, ISL has only 8 teams and the competition lasts less than two months. Foreign recruits are old players from Europe, Latin America, Africa and some nations in Asia. These players cannot find spots in the clubs of their own countries and ISL is like a windfall for them in their retired life. The aged foreigners need to gel with younger Indian players, whose football skills are yet to be developed. This is the reasons why ISL matches cannot provide the same spark on the field compared to other major football leagues of the world. Regardless, the ISL management still needs to be commended in having brought new level of competitive football to India. One fervently hopes that as time goes by, things will change for better.
The first match at Guwahati between North-East United FC and Kerala Blasters had a slow beginning with neither team being able to capitalize on ball possession. NEUFC got their first scoring chance in 24th minute, when KB goalkeeper made an error and the ball came to home team’s Romaric. But instead of articulating his shot, Romaric played straight into the hands of KB goalkeeper Graham Stack. The lackluster play continued and the only moment of notice was an attempt of KB in 32nd minute. Kervens Belfort sent a deep cross for Mohammad Rafi, whose header went off target. In 42nd minute, NEUFC got another scoring chance when Romaric sent a great ball from the left but there was no one to apply the finishing touches. Stack punched the ball away and teams went out with a goalless halftime.
When they came out for next 45 minutes of play, complexion of the game changed somewhat. Both teams played from end to end but they couldn’t come close to making any difference to the score-line. In 55th minute, however, NEUFC’s Nicolas Velez sent a low cross in front of the goal and Japanese Katsumi Yusa saw his opportunity. He ran full blast and tapped the ball into the goal to beat the outstretched hands of KB keeper Stack. More than 27000 home fans rose to their feet and the stadium erupted in joy. It was a special moment for Yusa, who had been making his Hero ISL debut for NEUFC. The Fukushima-born Japanese has been playing in India for past 5 years after joining ONGC in 2011. He switched to Mohan Bagan in the 2013-14 I-League season. Yusa recently joined NEUFC and he couldn’t have had a better start. After that goal, Blasters attempted to equalize and came close on several occasions. NEUFC also tried to double their lead but failed to do so. In the end, ISL’s 2016 season started with NEUFC’s 1-0 victory over Kerala Blasters.