Without context, the Super Cup sticks out like a sore thumb
The Super Cup, which starts on Saturday evening with the first of the round of 16 matches between newly crowned Indian Super League (ISL) champions Chennaiyin FC and former I-League champions Aizawl FC, in Bhubaneswar, could have been a tournament for the ages, with better context and a more viable scheduling of fixtures.
Instead, 16 teams from the two leagues, held concurrently for the first time in 2017-18 will be heading to Odisha perhaps wondering why they are going to play through the April heat after a five-month-long season, especially when there's no continental place at stake, unlike in the Federation Cup, the tournament this Super Cup effectively replaces.
When the Super Cup was first proposed in the roadmap laid out for Indian football nearly two years ago, the idea behind this tournament was to make it a way to reward the winners with a continental slot. Even last year, when there was chatter around I-League teams being offered places in the expanded ISL, the AFC slot was on the table for a long time, with the idea then being of a separate league at the end of the season with the top four teams of both leagues.
The Super Cup itself may not have satisfied any of those initial plans, yet its straight knockout concept similar to the sort of drama the Federation Cup used to generate till 2007. It wasn't uncommon then, for second division teams like Punjab Police, Vasco or Indian Bank to throw the tournament open by stunning a big team, and perhaps there will be some surprises yet in the days to come. The qualifiers were dramatic in themselves - the bottom four of the ISL met those that finished in the I-League's last four, and an ISL team registered a regulation time victory only once in four matches.
On the face of it, the purpose of putting ISL and I-League on a level-playing field is met, with neither league getting additional exposure, marketing support, or better pitches to work with. The score between the two leagues is at 2-2, a better return than what most would have expected, given the country's best footballers are widely believed to be with the swankier, richer ISL.
Spare a thought, though, for Aizawl and Bengaluru, who compete over the first two days of the tournament and then travel to play an important AFC Cup group clash, to then travel back for the Super Cup if they are still in contention. Also, Kerala Blasters, who will face NEROCA on April 6, play after 36 days since their last ISL game.
Between the lack of context and a puzzling schedule, the Super Cup stands the risk of sticking out as an unwarranted extension of the regular season.