Jhingan, Thapa and Rathi credit Hero ISL for India’s football revolution

Football in India has made rapid strides in terms of development ever since the inception of the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) in 2014. Besides providing a platform that consistently unearths hidden gems from the domestic circuit, the level of football in the league seems to have had a knock-on effect on the national side as well.

And who better to explain the benefits that the league has brought to Indian football other than the players themselves. Emerging Player of the League from the inaugural season, Sandesh Jhingan had no doubts about the transformative effect that the Hero ISL has had on football in the country.

“I think the ISL has helped us Indian footballers immensely, there’s no doubt about that. First thing, the major thing, is the exposure we got by playing with and against top players. From my very first season, I got to spend a lot of time around world class footballers who have played at the highest level, which is the best way to learn,” the former Kerala Blasters defender told the thebridge.in.

“From David James to Aaron Hughes, Wes Brown, (Dimitar) Berbatov… everyone who came, I am of course missing some names… when you are around them through the day, you can see how a world class player handles himself on and off the pitch,” he added.

Jhingan believes rubbing shoulders with such household names and playing outside one’s comfort zone will invariably raise a player’s game. “When you play against them whether it’s training or games, (Alessandro) Del Piero, (Nicolas) Anelka, Miku, Coro (Ferran Corominas) all the players, the very prospect is exciting for any youngster out there to prove himself,” he said.

“I am a firm believer that if you want to improve yourself, you have to play outside your comfort zone, you have to play at the highest level against top opponents, that’s when you get to know your real potential. When you play against these players and do well, that gives you a lot of confidence. And I think this has helped me a lot when I was able to do well, I felt, ‘Yes, I also have it in me’,” Jhingan added.

Looking back at football in India prior to the inception of the Hero ISL, Jhingan noted a stark difference. “One thing that I always felt before 2013-14 was that no one cared about Indian football. Apart from a handful, no one really knew Indian football. Now, I see that people are taking an active interest in football. So, the ISL has popularised the game in the country. At the end of the day, you have to accept that the league has helped Indian football, it has helped the national team and now there are so many people turning up for matches,” he said. 

Jhingan, of course, isn’t the only Indian player to wax lyrical about the Hero ISL’s impact on Indian football. “ISL has played a huge role in my career, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of this revolution in Indian football. The league has given me opportunities to work with some of the best coaches, (it has) a more professional attitude towards the game and, of course, an opportunity to play and learn alongside some of the world’s best in the game,” Anirudh Thapa, who won Hero ISL 2017-18 with Chennaiyin FC and was AIFF’s Emerging Footballer that year, opined.

Thapa continued, “I think the ISL has revolutionised Indian Football for the upcoming generations. The league has come up with hope for young players to make a career in football. It has also provided the national team with a number of excellent players in recent years. Precisely I think, the league has made it easy for players from all walks of life to dream of playing for the national team, one day.”

Every passing Hero ISL campaign shines the spotlight on new talented youngsters and last season was no different. As ATK FC became Hero ISL champions for a third time, youngster Sumit Rathi played a big role for them in their backline. A revelation from last season and one for the future for the Blue Tigers, Rathi made it clear that it’s because of the Hero ISL that he fulfilled his dream.

“I don’t see ISL just as a platform. For me it is the platform to fulfil your dreams. After playing here, it becomes your belief that you can do everything, it gives you confidence that you can play for any country at any level with any quality player. For a young player, playing with an experienced player helps a lot. You can pick up new techniques from top players. The football atmosphere we get here is everything that a professional football player should get, you learn how to play under pressure when your team’s fans have high expectations,” Rathi said.

“I think it’s a great platform to prove that you can play for your country. Playing at this level and against experienced players, where at every moment you have to face very good strikers; you have to first be mentally strong as well as prepared to deal with any challenge. I benefited a lot because there were very good strikers in my team, there were experienced strikers, so I have to face them in every training session and I have learned a lot from them,” the 18-year-old added.

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