The fixtures for the eighth edition of the Indian Super League (ISL 2022-23) were released on Thursday.
Among the major changes in the League's format is the new format for the playoffs, the return of fans in stadiums and an alteration in the schedule that will see matches being played only from Thursdays to Sundays.
Here are seven takeaways from the ISL 2022-23 fixtures -
Fans are back
This was unofficially confirmed a long time back, but there's nothing like an official announcement is, there? The ISL will return to the traditional home and away format this season, and that will bring with it the return of fans to stadiums. No more canned stadium noises, no more footballers' curses echoing off empty stands: bring on actual fans in full volume across the country.
No more bio-bubble
What a return to the home-and-away format also means is that the enforced bio-bubble is done with. This may have been a necessity in the past two seasons (definitely a necessity in the first), but it was hugely detrimental to both viewer experience and much more importantly, players' mental health.
Being cooped in a room/resort for such an extended period of time [close to six months] took its toll on players both young and experienced, with bio-bubble fatigue the most common phrase uttered at every press conference.
Players, and staff, can now go back to separating the professional from the personal, where training (and playing) is just one part of life. This return to routine is what everyone has been crying out for.
Spread out matches
Matches will be played only from Thursdays-Sundays this time around, with double headers on Saturdays. This is a big departure from the 'we-must-have-one-match-every-day' stance of the past seasons.
It will not only help stadium attendance in terms of making it easier for fans to attend, but it will also help decrease the physical strain on players with the lopsided schedules of the earlier format.
It's not only physical conditioning and recovery that it helps with, either. Managers get to spend more time in training and help players learn and adapt to their philosophy and that should translate to better football on the pitch.
This has been a change for a long time in coming, and while it's still not ideal, small steps are better than none.
This is a longer season: not in terms of more ISL matches, but in terms of a structure for the Indian footballing system and players in the ISL.
It's already started with the Durand Cup, attended by all ISL clubs (even if not everyone has sent their first team), and the five-month-long ISL season will be succeeded by the Super Cup. This allows players and teams to play together for longer, something that's vital for any setup looking to implement a long-term vision.
The new playoffs
Arguably the only change that has a downside. If more than half the teams in your league are qualifying for the playoffs, does it not decrease the value of that round?
Two additional matches are welcome, of course, but it does dilute the importance of a high league finish even further. There has been considerable tension at the end of the past few seasons to see who makes the top 4, but this takes that zip out of the end of the season.
The format, meanwhile, for these playoffs is as below:
Eliminator 1: 3rd vs 6th
Eliminator 2: 4th vs 5th
Semifinal 1: 1st vs (Winner: Eliminator 2)
Semifinal 2: 2nd vs (Winner: Eliminator 1)
The eliminators will be single leg, and the semifinals double (home and away). And then, of course, the single-legged final.
No break for the World Cup
A potential pain point is that the season clashes with not just one, but two World Cups.
First, the U17 Women's World Cup that India is hosting from October 11 - October 30. India's group stages clash with Jamshedpur vs Odisha (Oct 11) and Chennaiyin vs Bengaluru (Oct 14). India's third group stage match is on Monday, so there's no ISL match on that day. The final of the tournament (Oct 30) will meanwhile clash with Jamshedpur vs NorthEast United.
The ISL also clashes with the senior men's World Cup which is being held in Qatar from November 20 to December 18. For instance, FC Goa plays ATK Mohun Bagan on the same day as the WC opener.
While there are no matches scheduled for the day of the World Cup final (Dec 18), there will be plenty of points during the group stages and the knockouts where a viewer will have to choose between watching the ISL and the World Cup.
Dates to mark
October 7: The start of the league; with Kerala Blasters taking on East Bengal. A major departure from the norm, that, but one mandated by ATK Mohun Bagan's potential involvement in the latter stages of the AFC Cup (the final is on October 5, and hence Bagan's first ISL match is scheduled for October 10, against Chennaiyin).
October 16: Blasters vs Bagan, the postponed traditional curtain-raiser.
October 29 and February 25: East Bengal vs ATK Mohun Bagan. The Kolkata derby. India's greatest rivalry. Being played out in front of fans for the first time in the ISL. Oh, the hype!
November 12: Jamshedpur FC vs Hyderabad FC. Defending league shield winners vs defending champions -- always a tasty fixture.