Why A-League’s loss is ISL's gain

Financial stress has forced top A-League football stars to defect to a more stable ISL this season.
By Naveen Peter

When Sydney FC’s Adam Le Fondre took the field for the A-League’s Grand Final in August, little did he know that he would be seeking his fortunes in a far-flung league a few months later.

But as fate would have it, Adam Le Fondre - A-League's second-highest goal-scorer - will don Mumbai City FC colours when the 2020-21 Indian Super League (ISL) kicks-off in Goa next week.

For a league that has picked up steam ever since its inception in 2014, the latest edition is expected to be the biggest one. And one of the primary reasons behind this is the inclusion of some top-quality talent from across the world.

Leading this foreign 'invasion' is a long list of A-listers from the Australian football league who have signed up for the ISL 2020-21 this season.

While Adam Le Fondre is undoubtedly the biggest draw, the names include the likes of former Celtic FC star Gary Hooper, centre-back James Donachie, Adelaide United’s Kristian Opseth and Dylan Fox from the Central Coast Mariners.

Gary Hooper will play for Kerala Blasters FC in ISL 2020-21. Photo: Kerala Blasters FC/Facebook

It’s no surprise that the financial distress that the league Down Under is dealing with due to the COVID-19 pandemic has paved the way for this tectonic shift.

Changing trends Down Under

With broadcasters Fox Sports renegotiating their deal for the upcoming season, teams have had to juggle with a reduced salary cap.

“Back home, there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding how much will we be paid, when will we be paid and so on,” James Donachie tells the Olympic Channel, who’s joined FC Goa for a reported fee of Rs 3.95 crore.

“Because of issues like these in the A-League, a lot of players have had options elsewhere too. Some are in Europe, some are here in the ISL and then you have guys in the other Asian leagues as well.”

Helping the players make up their mind is the stability that the clubs in India have showcased over the past few years. While teams like Bengaluru FC, FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC have built a reputation for themselves in the Asian market, the entry of the City Football Group - a group that owns Manchester City - has only strengthened this claim.

“Definitely, it helps with the professionalism that I expect as a footballer,” says Adam Le Fondre. The Australian admits that having City Football Group back Mumbai City FC helped him decide his future.

“They are doing things the right way. And as a footballer, that’s all you want. You want to be given an opportunity to do things the right way and always improve as a player.”

Another aspect that’s worked in this regard is the ISL’s decision to opt for Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) ‘+1’ rule. 

According to the rule, every club has to have a foreign player from one of the AFC member nations on their roster. And with most of the top talents in West and East Asia beyond a team’s budget in the ISL, Australia emerged as a market for the ISL teams.

“I’m not being biased but there’s no better place to pick an Asian spot player than Australia because I think Indians have a great relationship with Australia,” says Erik Paartalu, the Australian midfielder at Bengaluru FC.

“You know what you’re gonna get with an Aussie player. They’re hard-working, they integrate well, they’re big team players. Historically there’s a lot of good.”

ISL’s changing outlook 

Many believe that the recent changes are also helping in improving how the ISL is viewed in the Asian market.

Erik Paartalu signed for Bengaluru FC in 2017 and has been an integral part of the side since. Photo: BFC Media

Though it started as a league with superstar names at the tail end of career stopping by for a two-month event, the efforts from the clubs over the past seasons have seen the quality go up a few notches as well.

“Maybe, going forward, the ISL can be a stepping stone for younger European and South American players to set their foot in Asia,” hopes Mandar Tamhane, the Bengaluru FC CEO.

“The league is well structured, you have got continental competitions to play in, you are taken care of well. I think all these things make a footballer attracted towards a certain league.

“Going ahead I won’t be surprised if ISL becomes a league where you have players come, perform well and they get signed by teams in the bigger West Asian and the East Asian leagues,” Tamhane envisioned.