EXCITEMENT, NERVES, AND DRAMA were aplenty as ISL franchises went head to head to bag the very cream of Indian football for themselves in the upcoming edition of Indian Super League. 10 top players, all of them Indian internationals, went under the hammer at the ISL Players' Auction, the first of its kind in Indian football. It was a success in every way, generating a sizeable buzz in social media as well as raising Rs 7.2 crores in player sale money.
Overseen by the experienced auctioneer Charlie Ross and hosted by John Dykes, the bidding began by drawing lots (in this case, miniature footballs from a bag) containing the names of Sunil Chhetri (starting price Rs 80 lakhs), Karanjit Singh (60 lakhs), Anas Edathodika (40 lakhs), Arata Izumi (40 lakhs), Robin Singh (40 lakhs), Thoi Singh (39 lakhs), Eugeneson Lyngdoh (27.5 lakhs), Jackichand Singh (20 lakhs) and Seityasen Singh (20 lakhs) and Rino Anto (17.5 lakhs). Players were divided into two pools of five each.
While more than a hundred others were put in the draft list, this special list of 10 stood out in many ways; like 5 of them came from the North-Eastern states and an equal number have been playing for the Federation Cup winners Bengaluru FC (there were two each from Royal Wahingdoh and Pune FC and one from Salgaocar). Although 10 people make for a small sample size, the auction list was a fair reflection of which states were producing better players and which clubs were better at conducting transfer business.
The proceedings began with I-League Player of the Season and proud Hero Maestro owner Jackichand Singh. And the Maharashtra teams got in the action from the very get go. Mumbai took on a proactive approach and the price soon went up to 28 lakhs. It was then that Pune jumped in with strong intent, quickly raising their pedals to drive up the price past the 40 lakh mark. The hammer went down at Rs 45 lakhs in favour of FC Pune City. Co-owner Hritik Roshan joined the player on stage to sign the contract.
Next up was Bengaluru FC medio Thoi Singh who drew interest from almost all the franchises. Starting at Rs 39 lakhs, Chennaiyin FC entered the battle and the bids crossed the 50 lakh mark in no time. NorthEast United and Mumbai City were heavily participating as well, turning it into a three-way bidding battle. Once past the 70 lakh margin, the Chennaiyin FC delegates slowed things down, waiting till the last moment to announce their bids, a common bidding tactic meant to mentally tire out an opponent. But the bidding war kept going until Mumbai City gave up and Chennaiyin FC bagged the tried-and-tested Indian international for Rs 86 lakhs.
With the first two players more than doubling their asking price, the atmosphere heated up as bigger bidding wars were anticipated with players like Sunil Chhetri, Robin Singh and Eugeneson Lyngdoh yet to be called up. But the next player that got called saw drama of a different kind.
Pune FC midfielder Anas Edathodika had a starting bid of 40 lakhs. When Charlie Ross called for bids for a few tense moments it seemed as if no one was ready to open the bidding. Then Atletico de Kolkata raised their pedal. But even as Ross repeatedly implored franchises to get in on the chase he drew a blank. Eventually he gave up and raised the hammer, but the pedal from the Delhi Dynamos table lit up at the very last second. That was it. ATK did not follow up their opening bid and the Dynamos made their first buy of the day, and Edathodika's auction, in spite of not commanding a sum way above his asking price, showcased the kind of mind game tactics franchises would use time and again as the auction went along.
If the bidding for Anas seemed like a slow, build-up based suspense film, the next player that got called evoked the auction equivalent of an action-packed blockbuster. When Eugeneson Lyngdoh's name was called, there was a murmur from all the tables. The Bengaluru FC medio from Shillong is one of the best players in the national team right now and a true asset for any franchise in ISL. The bid opened at 27.5 lakhs. Kerala Blasters pitched in at 28, and things got off to a slow start. Few moments later, Atletico de Kolkata and NorthEast United joined in, and as the price climbed past 35 lakhs, the speed of bidding intensified. Then, without warning, the fight over Eugeneson escalated into a war. Pune City were in, so were their "noisy neighbours" Mumbai City. The bid price went above 50 lakhs, with 5 franchises still in the fray. Then, before the disbelieving eyes of the player himself, the bids kept coming and coming. The price jumped past 60, 70, then 80 lakhs... no one was giving up. Even Sunil Chhetri could not hide his excitement when Atletico de Kolkata made that big bid of Rs 1 crore. Pune City upped that with a Rs 1.05 crore bid, and there it stayed, for some painfully suspenseful moments, before the hammer came down. Pune City had prevailed, for the second time already, in some pretty heavy-duty bidding battles.
Up next was Sunil Chhetri. The biggest name in Indian football at the moment, and the hottest item on the list. The bidding started at Rs 80 lakhs, went past Rs 1 crore within seconds. Delhi and Mumbai exchanged a couple of bids and counter-bids, driving the price up to Rs 1.2 crore. And then the bids stopped. Auctioneer Charlie Ross huffed and puffed, but no lit-up pedal was shooting up. The bidding war was over as quickly as it had started, and Mumbai City had made their best signing of the season. Even after the papers were signed and the jersey held up, co-owner Ranbir Kapoor was still in disbelief,
"We never expected to get Sunil for this price. We though his price would go past our cap. We are a bit shocked and surprised."
Sunil, however, was as calm as he is during free-kicks,
"I Have also been all over hte world but never been to Mumbai. So thanks for bringing me to Mumbai."
With Nicolas Anelka and Chhetri up front (along with, possibly, Mohun Bagan star winger Sony Norde), Mumbai City now have fearsome forward line, which a delighted Ranbir Kapoor termed as a "dream combination."
After a short break, the players in the second pool went up for auction. The proceedings started with Pune FC midfielder Arata Izumi. Bidding started at 40 lakhs, and from the get go it became a duel between NorthEast United and Atletico de Kolkata. The two franchises took their time in making their bids, trying each other's patience. But no side was ready to give up as the price went beyond the 60 lakh mark, with the player looking on with a smile. But in the end it was John Abraham's side who blinked. At 68 lakhs, Atletico de Kolkata made their first signing of the day.
Up next was another star striker: Indian intenational and Bengaluru FC fan favourite Robin Singh. Starting at 40 lakhs, it became a contest between Kerala Blasters and Delhi Dynamos. The bidding did not last long and came to close with Delhi winning out on Rs 51 lakhs. Newly appointed manager Roberto Carlos looked very happy with his first signing of the day, but Robin Singh's reputation of not being in the right place continued (cough, offside, cough) as he was the only player in the auction list who could not be present at the venue due to a physical illness (chicken pox).
Then it was Karanjit Singh's turn. With a Rs 60 lakh asking price, the Salgaocar FC goalkeeper was in every sense a niche product. Not every franchise needed him, but whoever wanted to have foreigners in the front along with an experienced, reliable Indian goalkeeper would be keen on him, and with a starting price of that kind one would be enough to satisfy everyone involved. And that was exactly how it went down. Chennaiyin FC made the opening bid and that was that. Karanjit didn't look so happy but he became the priciest Indian goalkeeper in this season's ISL Auction+Draft anyway.
Defender Rino Anto, from Bengaluru FC, had the least asking price among all the players up for the auction. Nobody really knew what to expect and when bids for him started out at Rs 17.5 lakhs. But then the bids came in like heavy artillery fire as Charlie Ross did not even have time to announce one bid before the next pedal went up. The price shot up, past 30, 40, 50, 60 lakhs... leaving the player himself breathless in anticipation. FC Goa, Mumbai City and Atletico de Kolkata constantly outbid each other until at long last, ATK prevailed, securing Anto at Rs 90 lakhs. As Rino went up to the stage to complete the signing, there was a spring in his steps and he could not stop smiling.
Last of the lot was Seityasen Singh. Another Royal Wahingdoh player, he had played alongside Jackichand Singh since junior levels. So there was a lot of anticipation to see whether he would go to the same team as Jackichand or would, for the first time, be separated from his best friend. The bidding started at 20 lakhs and two franchises who were yet to make a signing, Kerala Blasters and NorthEast United, came in with vicious intent not to end up empty-handed. The bids came in thick and the price went past 50 lakhs, eventually coming to rest with NorthEast United winning out on their Rs 56 lakh bid. The player seemed to approve it too, as he gave two thumbs up to his new team's owner John Abraham. The Bollywood actor later said he was ready to pay any price for Seityasen.
Thus it was that the first ever ISL Players' Auction came to an end. Four franchises, namely Pune, Chennai, Kolkata and Delhi had bagged two players each while Mumbai and NorthEast got one apiece. But it was the two Maharashtra franchises that came out winners as they secured three of the most wanted players for themselves. Running for about 3 hours, the event saw all kinds of bidding wars take place; slow, calculated ones, trigger-happy fast ones, duels as well as those where nothing could be heard but crickets chirping. Veteran auctioneer and BBC show host Charlie Ross expertly handled the proceedings, controlling the room's mood with his pin-point timing and eloquent Brit humour. In the closing comments, John Dykes declared the auction to be a success, as he declared a recess to allow the franchise representatives to catch some much-needed breath as they prepared to follow up their bidding acts with picks at the Draft.