Ever since the advent of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014, its comparisons with I-League have been inevitable. For long, there has been a raging debate as to which of the two leagues is of the higher standard.
When the inaugural Super Cup was announced, it was termed by many as the chance for the two respective leagues to showcase their mettle against the other. So far in the knockout tournament, there have been eight direct clashes between ISL and I-League teams with Wednesday’s meeting between FC Pune City and Shillong Lajong.
With Lajong’s spirited come-from-behind upset over their highly fancied opponents on Wednesday, the count between both leagues stands at four wins apiece. When digging a little deeper, it is apparent that most of the outcomes in the competition so far have been influenced heavily by the overseas recruits in either of the sides.
When ISL champions Chennaiyin FC were stunned by Aizawl FC in their round of 16 clash, they lined up only with three overseas players in the playing XI when five are permitted. Of those three, only the Brazilian Mailson Alves had been a crucial component of the side’s ISL title-winning campaign.
The other two – Jude Nworuh and Jaime Gavilan - had largely been on the fringes during the ISL campaign. Also rested was striker Jeje Lalpekhlua as John Gregory rang in the changes. In the end, Alves’ 89th-minute equalizer was of no avail as the 2016-17 I-League champions went on to win in a penalty shoot-out.
When looking at the Chennaiyin line-up for the match, it is really hard to argue that the standard of the likes of Keenan Almeida and Dhanachandra Singh is any higher than their Indian counterparts in the I-League.
While it is true that the cream of the crop when it comes to Indian players that the ISL has been the preferred destination in recent times, the gulf in quality between their I-League counterparts is not huge. Apart from the well established national team stars, there is not much to differentiate when it comes to picking the better Indian players in the two leagues.
The argument that the foreign players have been the difference makers in clashes between sides from the two leagues is further strengthened by the performance of NorthEast United FC in the Super Cup.
The lack of quality in their overseas recruits for the season was evident in the Guwahati-based outfit’s ISL campaign where they finished as the wooden spoon holders. They paid the price for that lack in quality in their clash against Gokulam Kerala FC as Henry Kisekka banged in two goals for the Kerala side.
In the qualifiers for the Super Cup, when Mumbai City FC beat the Indian Arrows, it took a late equalizer from Achille Emana and an extra-time winner from Everton Santos for the ISL side to overcome a spirited resistance from All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) developmental side.
ISL runners-up Bengaluru FC could very well have suffered a round of 16 exit at the hands of I-League newcomers Gokulam Kerala themselves if not for some bit of magic from their star Venezuelan striker Miku. This despite Bengaluru fielding their strongest XI.
And who can forget Churchill Brothers’ defeat of Delhi Dynamos in the very first match qualifier of the Super Cup that set the tone for the rest of the competition. The Goa-based outfit had finished last in the I-League, earning themselves a relegation but their new signing Willis Plaza made all the difference on the night as the ISL club was knocked out.
Yes, the motivation is not there for the ISL clubs to take the competition seriously which is evident in the number of ovreseas recruits they named in their Super Cup squads. Mumbai City will be playing East Bengal with just two foreigners. While the foreign signings are of a different level, if you factor that out, there is very little to choose between the clubs from the two leagues.
This trend of overseas players making the ultimate difference has been a pretty common one so far as the maiden cup competition approaches the quarter-finals mark. Whether it will change in the coming matches remains to be seen. For now, the tussle between the two leagues remains very much even.