WITH THE FOOTBALL SEASON drawing to a close in just a few days, there is a surge of activities among clubs and franchises to prepare their teams for the next season. The transfer rush was kicked off with the ISL franchises announcing the list of Indian players they will retain from last year. A total of 41 players were retained while many others were released and signed up by other teams, and the stage was set for the open market transfers to hit full throttle.
Right now the raging gossips are all about the next batch of world class stars who will come to play in India. Mumbai City FC look set to extend their deal with Nicolas Anelka. The veteran French striker who has plied his trade at big European sides like PSG, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea made 7 appearances for the Mumbai franchise in the inaugural edition of ISL, scoring twice. Incidentally, he was set for a move to Ligue Professionnelle 1 club NA Hussein Dey back in January, but the Argentinian FA blocked the move citing their strict transfer regulations.
After a sub-par performance last season, Mumbai City want to build a new-look side, retaining only 3 Indian players (Subrata Paul, Subhash Singh and Lalrindika Ralte) which is the minimum mandated number. They have signed up Dempo duo Gabriel Fernandes and Rowilson Rodriguez who were not retained by FC Goa. Defender Kingshuk Debnath, recently in news for his on-field prowess for Mohun Bagan in the I-League, was released by Atletico de Kolkata and will also join the ranks of Mumbai City.
Atletico de Kolkata, after their successful inaugural season, have picked up a good mix of young blood and experience in the likes of Sushuil Kumar Singh, Nadong Bhutia, Jewel Raja, Clifford Miranda and Syed Rahim Nabi. Among the retained Indian players there are Mohanraj, Arnab Mondal, Denzil Franco and Baljit Sahni. The main buzz surrounding ATK, however, was their reportedly fledging alliance with Spanish side Atletico de Madrid. Unlike last year, the ATM officials were not consulted in the early stages of team-building, and there were rumours about an end to the tie-up. But all that dark cloud seems to have passed as Madrid-appointed coach Antionio Lopez Habas looks all set to continue in that role. And the rumours going around the Maidan area tip Mohun Bagan striker Sony Norde to take the position of Ethiopian striker Fikru Teffera who will not be returning for the second season. Fikru's stint at ATK was fraught with news of disciplinary issues and bad relations with teammates and staff.
FC Goa have retained no less than six Indian players from their last season's team (namely Romeo Fernandes, Mandar Rao Desai, Laxmikant Kattimani, Narayan Das, Debadrata Roy and Bikramjit Singh) and picked up the likes of Denson Devdas, Pronay Halder, Sabeeth, Raju Gaikwad and Joaquim Abranches from the open market. Their is an approach to build on the reasonably successful previous season that saw them revitalize the fledging local football fan community.
Up north, however, Delhi Dynamos are struggling to recover from the previous season's heavy financial losses. However, good news can be around the corner; rumours are going around that they are ditching the tie-up with Dutch club Feyernood for a massive upgrade: a partnership with Real Madrid.
So far they have made made a steady start in the transfer market, holding onto players like Dempo winger Francis Fernandes, Mohun Bagan duo Souvik Chakraborty and Anwar Ali as well as East Bengal defender and Winger Robert Lathlamuana and Syhlo “Mama” Malsawmtluanga. They also picked up Seminlen Doungel and goalie Subhashish Roy Chowdhury whom North East United and Atletico de Kolkata chose to part with. On the foreign player front, rumours are linking them to ex Barcelona captain Carles Puyol. The 37 year old Catalan legend represented Barca for 15 years, until announcing retirement last year after a long struggle with a knee injury. It seems he is ready to get back on the horse, and what better place to have a test run than a shorter tournament like ISL.
North East United have had a rocky first year of existence. They courted controversy even as the first ISL season was in progress when it was revealed that many of their Indian players, on loan from Shillong Lajong (a club whose owner is co-owner of the NEUFC franchise) had not been given proper player contracts and were being paid a nominal appearance fee instead. There was also dispute between the owners, and one of them even abandoned the partnership midway through the tournament. On the field their performance wasn't that great either, but their main takeaway from the inaugural ISL was the massive loyal following they gained. They have opted to retain key experienced players like Aiborlang Khongjee, Rehnesh, Robin Gurung, Alen Deory and Boithang Haokip, while recruiting Holicharn Narzary and Sanju Pradhan from the open market.
Apart from NEUFC, it was the Chennaiyin FC franchise that gained a significant following in a city where I-League has no presence. Team building for the second season is well underway for them with Jayesh Rane, Abhishek Das, Harmanjot Singh Khabra, Jeje Lalpekhula, Dhanachandra Singh and Balwant Singh being retained while Godwin Franco and Mehrajuddin Wadoo being the new hands on the deck. FC Pune City, on the other hand, are taking it slow; their only new signing is Gourmangi Singh while Lenny Rodriguez, Arindam Bhattacharya, Israil Gurung, Ravanan Dharmaraj, Pritam Kotal and Manish Maithani are all being retained.
Kerala Blasters who missed out on the title by whiskers in the maiden ISL are leaving no stones unturned to go the extra distance this time around. Their newly signed trip Mohammed Rafi, Ramandeep Singh and Nirmal Chhetri all bring a lot of experience to the side while previous season's super sensation Sandesh Jhingan, along with Ishfaq Ahmed, Mehtab Hossain, Saumik Dey, Gurwinder Singh and goalie Sandip Nandy are being held onto. There is no doubt that the soul of the team will be carried forward onto the next season as they shoot for supremacy once again.
In the coming weeks we are going to hear a lot of big names being connected to various ISL franchises. Some of these high profile moves will materialize, some will fall through at the negotiations table. But what the first season of ISL showed us, and what makes it so exciting, is that you never know who at what point will pull a move that changes the very texture of the tournament. As September draws near, the multitudes of fans will once again await to be wowed by a Sandesh Jhingan or a last minute victory-clinching goal from a Mohammed Rafique. One thing is for sure; it's all going to be worth the wait.