MLS and ISL – Drawing parallels

Two superpowers in their own right – USA and India. Over the last decade, both of them have embraced the need to expand their sporting community to Football – the most watched sport globally. Major League Soccer and the Indian Super League have forged their own timelines and identities over the last 5 years, but the path taken by both are very similar. Massive investments from the business community, aging but superstar names from the global football fraternity in order to draw viewership are just a couple of the commonalities between these initiatives.

An oft forgotten fact is that football was India’s main sport dating back to the early 20th century. India also showcases arguably the greatest rivalry in the sport across the world – Mohan Bagan vs East Bengal. Somewhere along the way, funding and infrastructure challenges hindered the growth of the sport in the country. In contrast with the ISL, the MLS has been around since 1993 and was set up as part of USA’s successful bid to host the 1994 Olympics. In spite of its reasonably longer history as compared to ISL, football in the US faces cultural challenges as the country has been brought up on the ‘Big Four’ – Baseball, American football, Basketball and Ice Hockey. Cricket in India and the ‘Big Four’ in the US bring similar challenges to the growth of football in their respective country, ISL has learnt a lesson or two from what the MLS has done to overcome them.

Superstar way to the Top

Currently, the MLS is in its 23rd season and has recently taken to the trend of attracting retired world class players who bring a lot to the game in terms of quality, brand appeal and exposure for the local players. Legendary Players like Pele, Beckenbauer and Cryuff paved the way for the current state of US Football in the latter part of the past century. This has progressed to the likes of Beckham, Henry, Kaka and Pirlo in recent years embracing big money post retirement and a chance of giving back to the game they love.

In early 2013, International Management Group and Reliance (IMG-Reliance) teamed up with the All India Football Federation with the aim of rejuvenating the sport in our country often marginalized by its flashier cousin – cricket. They have adopted the same strategy as the MLS by roping in retired superstars to play in the league. Robert Pires and Freddie Ljunberg – two legends from the 2004 Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ team are just two of the attractions that have managed to deliver on IMG’s vision of reinvigorating the national football community. Add Roberto Carlos, Trezeguet, Luis Enrique and Malouda to the mix and you have some serious star power catering to the Indian football fan. The global exposure that this vision has brought for the Indian players has helped increase their quality as footballers. There is a lot to learn for the Indian footballers and rubbing shoulders with these stalwarts helps understand nuances of the game not achievable through mere training.

Funding and Grassroots Development

There is a tremendous amount of funding available in the US which is being poured into the football scene in an effort to build up interest for the sport. TV agencies like NBC and Fox have become cognizant of this rising tide and have invested heavily in advertising and media rights for the top European leagues. This adds to the awareness that football has managed to create over the last few years which helps the next generation of football players approach football as a legitimate sports career. As a consequence, there has been a growing interest in developing the sport at the grassroots level – the US Soccer Development Academy becoming the hub for all soccer related activities for the youth athletes in the country. The Academy has immense support from the MLS and US Soccer which has helped create a supply line for quality players starting from the ground up. The most important aspect of the academy is scouting and the direct involvement of the MLS in this regard is a massive shot in the arm for US football.

Similar to the US, there has been a sharp uptick in investment for the sport in India. The ISL teams have managed to drum up a city wide loyalty among its fans only rivalled by the IPL. This level of financial support has also helped set up a family friendly environment in terms of infrastructure at the stadiums, and more importantly manage the lofty salaries of these marquee players. As IMG realized very quickly, this was the quickest way to attain nation wide audience and popularity on its way to becoming a global presence.  As evidenced in the MLS, a vital addition to ISL’s growth has been its investment at the grassroots level with city based training camps and the national ‘Reliance Foundation Young Champs’ program. This is aimed at youth development and bringing them to the next level. Every ISL team has invested heavily in scouting at the youth level with local schools forming the center piece of their efforts. The icing on the cake for these efforts was Thierry Henry, one of the most recognizable sporting faces in the world coming down to interact and train the RFYC kids. He agreed that the ISL has been doing good work and is on the way up – a sound testimonial from a bonafide superstar who has seen it all in football.

The ISL has slowly and steadily climbed up the popularity charts and now stands as the 4th most popular football league in the world behind only England, Germany and Spain. Again, ISL is currently 4th in the world ahead of the likes of Italy, Brazil, China and Argentina, with an average attendance of 24,000 people.  217 million people watched the ISL in 2016 – a steady increase of 9 million in its viewership from the last year. These numbers have been a result of the MSL mantra that ISL has modelled itself on – sign up marquee global superstars with massive brand appeal to intrigue the football fans in the country. Simple enough, but there was much doubt on how this strategy would aid the league over time rather than just being a flash in the pan. ISL has helped accelerate the ascent of Indian football, this needs to be sustained through focused investment and support at the grassroots level unlike the top only approach of the Chinese league. The initial signs are great and 2017 looks towards even greener pastures for Indian football with a proposed deal between AIFF and IMG to make the ISL the premier football competition in India. Football has truly arrived!

The Year of the Underdog – Leicester City FC

Over the last decade, soccer has increasingly become a sport for the big spenders. A look at the top leagues around the world show that there have been only 3 such instances over the last decade when one of the richly endowed teams hasn’t won the title. Three out of forty championships (across England, Spain, Germany and Italy) – that is an extremely low return and points towards the growing monopolization of the sport by the deep pockets of global business magnates.

This is what makes Leicester City’s 2015 season a wonderful achievement and defies logical reason. Sustaining form over an entire season of 38 games is no mean feat, considering that they were up against the bottomless coffers and resources of the Big Four in England. Only four clubs had lifted the Premier League trophy in the previous 20 years (Man United 11, Chelsea 4, Arsenal 3, Man City 2). Leicester City sure made a Goliath-like entrance to that winners club last season.

Let’s take a closer look at the team and how they won the title against all odds, literally beating 5000:1 on the books.

Stable squad of players devoid of major injuries – One of the key aspects of this team was that they were able to scrape through the long English season making only 27 changes to the starting XI. To provide some context, the champion makes 94.5 changes in a season on average, Chelsea in the previous season made 86 inspite of their world class team. This resulted in only 18 players starting a game for Leicester in the season as compared to 23, 22 and 20 for Arsenal, Man City and Tottenham respectively. This stability and player rapport held them in good stead as the team was able to churn out consistent performances week in week out.

Leicester FC have been one of the pioneers in using data analytics over the 11 years that it has existed in the Premier League. They used data analytics and performance metrics to track player fitness, performance levels and preemptively address the injury issue plaguing other top teams. This helped the team understand their strengths, weaknesses and creating a personalized performance program for each player.

Playing style – Widely considered obsolete, Leicester used the much maligned 4-4-2 formation as the perfect foil to their rapid counter attacking style of play. Ranieri came up with the perfect system for the group of players he inherited at the start of the 2015 season. Leicester had a tendency to stay on the backfoot out of possession with a tight pressing style throughout the game. As soon as they won the ball through their press, they would launch a counter attack transitioning from defence to attack utilising the speed of the attackers – Vardy, Mahrez and Okazaki through a simple long ball or a diagonal pass into space. In the age of possession style football, this contrarian system helped them score the 3rd highest goals tally for the season. A solid defensive line along with Kasper Schemeichel deserve special mention as they were under constant pressure against the possession based teams.

Element of Surprise – Most teams were not prepared for Leicester’s modus operandi. They were often caught off guard by the frequency of the long diagonal balls played with the attacking players creating havoc using their speed and accuracy on the ball. Teams were not able come to terms with the fast paced direct nature of Leicester’s football and in the time that they took to adjust, Leicester would already be in front. Any efforts at a comeback would just prime them for the knockout blow as possession based attack played directly into Leicester’s strategy of counter attacking direct football. With teams using the offseason to study and come up with disruptive strategies – sitting back and counter attacking, Leicester have not had much success this season playing their way and are currently languishing at the bottom half of the table.

Rocky & Million Dollar Baby – Two of the greatest sports movies ever made. The common thread running through both was, an underdog with a massive chip on their shoulder rising against all odds to do the unthinkable. The 2015-16 sporting season seemed to follow a similar script for Leicester City demonstrating once more that sport is perfect fodder for the dreamers.

There is something about an underdog story, something unexplainable which brings a smile to the sports fan. Isn’t this why we watch sport in the first place?

Arsenal – An Emotion

 

12 years, 11 months and 15 days ago. This was the day Arsenal won the English Premier League 2004 season and in the process converted me, a die-hard David Beckham fan (consequently a ManU fan) into a supporter of the beautiful sport itself – ‘The Arsenal Way’.

There is a consensus amongst fellow arsenal supporters that I belong to the select ‘few’ Arsenal fans. The ones who were wooed by the beauty that is Arsenal style football on that fateful day. Football which seduces you slowly using subtle off the ball movement, silky touch and passing, breath-taking unselfish play culminating in the perfect goal – ‘The Arsenal Way’. Sounds perfect right? Wrong. The timing was the issue; I could have been celebrating my team as the premier league champions if I had only discovered ‘The Arsenal Way’ a day earlier. More than 4000 days later, the wait for another (or one in my case) premier league title continues.

Thankfully, I am one of those realistic Arsenal fans who understands their philosophy and know in my heart of hearts that we do not compete with the Madrids, Barcelonas and Munichs of the world. I dream of a solitary EPL title and not the champions league. Else, I would be living through the tragedy of an arsenal loss in the middle of the week come February. Right now it is limited to a dull throbbing washed over by a sharp realisation that it was the expected result every other weekend.
In my mind, every Arsenal season can be grouped into 5 stages of fan emotion by using the Hype curve for emerging technologies template. (Yes, I formed a correlation between technology products and sports – 5 years in consulting will do that to you).

Every season begins the same way for Arsenal, frustration at not being able to sign a big player during the entire transfer window up until the last day hinting at a sense of desperation. You must understand, Arsenal fans always believe that we are just one player away from ruling the world. With renewed vigour and hope after a last minute signing who will not be available for the first few games due to a ‘lack of match fitness’, we enter the season not knowing what to expect.

Understandably, there is nervousness for the first couple of weeks as the team takes its time to hit the stride. However, the next 2 months are what define the ‘Arsenal Way’ as stuff of dreams. We take the championship race by the scruff of the neck and hit peak form over that period. This takes us from ‘Early Season Jitters’ into the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations – (Read hopefully champions of the world). However, this is a fleeting emotion as the familiar curse with injuries and a cramped fixture list attribute to a rapid decline in performance over the next few months. We start losing ground to the eventual champions leading to the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ over the months of January and February.

As March rolls along, realisation dawns at another failed season and the team starts playing with renewed freedom and a sense of purpose. This ‘Slope of Enlightenment’ period is the most frustrating for every Arsenal fan, as they start playing like a champion side and string together a set of great results. It’s almost as if the team wants to be remembered as ‘also rans’, but the fans know better and they are left with a bitter ‘could have’ type of a season. April and May steadies the Arsenal ship and the team is able to ensure a top four finish with form which would have won the championship with ease if it had materialised in January. Every Arsenal fan ends the season with a tempered ‘Plateau of Reality’. This late season surge instils a sense of hope in us once again for the next season and the hype cycle repeats again.

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However, as they say sport is not just about winning. It represents an almost inexplicable emotion which takes you through immense highs and agonising lows, but the sheer joy of supporting your team is unparalleled and what keeps us going every season. Arsenal – An Emotion.