The Hero Indian Super League’s (ISL’s) commitment to developing young Indian footballers was matched by the teams in the competition this season, as more than 100 U-23 players featured this season, with 47 of them featuring in at least ten games for their teams. Ahead of the grand final this weekend, Indian football fans have been introduced to 32 debutants who were 23 or younger when the season began, alongside a long list of other Under-23 players who have broken through to become household names for their teams this season.

From this cohort of rising Indian Heroes, players like Sivasakthi Narayanan, Liston Colaco, Suresh Wangjam, Asish Rai, and Roshan Naorem will feature for Bengaluru FC and ATK Mohun Bagan in the final on Saturday, March 18, having become integral to their respective teams’ success over the season.

Since the start of a very competitive season, the new format of the ISL and its dynamic schedule have provided plenty of opportunities for teams to blood their youngsters in at the highest level.

The new format propelled six teams into the playoff phase of the Hero ISL this season, making teams hungrier than ever to make it into the final stages of the tournament. This allowed the young Indian Heroes opportunities to display their abilities as teams fine-tuned themselves to gain advantages. This has also been true in the playoffs, with players like 20-year-old Vibin Mohanan (Kerala Blasters FC) and 19-year-old Lalrinliana Hnamte (ATK Mohun Bagan) being entrusted by their teams in the most crucial stage of the tournament. In the second leg of the semi-final between Mumbai City FC and Bengaluru FC, Wangjam was also part of the penalties line-up for the latter in a sudden death scenario, while Narayanan assisted their only goal from open play in that game.

With the league becoming more fast-paced and competitive than ever, the growth of young Indian players reached exciting levels this season. All teams promoted promising youngsters from their academy into the first team while also roping in talent through their scouting networks across the country. Jiteshwor Singh was one such player to come through for Chennaiyin FC, and played 16 of their 20 games in the league stage.

FC Goa’s Ayush Dev Chhetri debuted as a 19-year-old for them this season and featured in all 20 of their league matches, making him the only U-23 Indian player to do so. East Bengal FC centre-back Lalchungnunga was also pivotal to his team, playing in 19 of their games after debuting as a 21-year-old and ending up with the second-highest number of clearances during the league stage.

Other notable debutants who became regulars for their team this season were Parthib Gogoi (18 matches) and Emil Benny (16 matches), both for NorthEast United FC, and Saurav Mandal (13 matches) and Bryce Miranda (12 matches), both for Kerala Blasters FC, who were among nine U-23 debutants to play in more than half of their team’s matches this season.

Emerging Indian players had more opportunities than ever to play at the highest level in this season of the Hero ISL and provided an encouraging glimpse of what is to come in the next decade.