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ISL 2019-20: Can the nation's top division deliver?

If the Indian Super League (ISL) started life in 2014 as a bling-laden, well-heeled teenager, the 2019-20 season represents a chance to present a more sober, mature image, especially after its official elevation as India's top division in place of the I-League.

There will be two new teams, and lots more to play for in the early stages of the season. Here are four reasons why the 2019-20 season is going to be one worth keeping track of.

Greater value to the league stages

An elevation to the top of Indian football brings with it a chance to grab the coveted AFC Champions League playoff spot for 2021, but the more interesting aspect is that the league stage winner gets that continental slot, leaving the playoffs for the trophy, prize money and domestic bragging rights.

This should infuse the league stages with greater context -- in four of the previous five seasons, the team that topped the group stages did not go on to win the ISL. Champions Bengaluru FC, who nicked the group stages last year ahead of FC Goa only on head-to-head, remain the only team to have bucked that trend.

Can two new venues arrest decline in stadium attendance?

According to figures available in the public domain from match reports, the ISL's average attendance has gone from 26,505 and 27,111 in the first two years to 13,155 in 2018-19, with a gradual decline across most venues each season.

FC Pune City and Delhi Dynamos have given way to Hyderabad FC and Odisha FC, and the absence of any high-level football in host cities Hyderabad and Bhubaneswar in recent decades could mean a spike in average attendance figures overall.

Kochi, Kolkata and Guwahati -- the ISL's most bankable venues in the inaugural two seasons -- have seen some of the sharpest dips in attendance, even accounting for marginal reduction in capacity that the 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup brought about.

Kerala Blasters drew in an average of 31,763 in 2017-18 -- down from 49,343 the season before -- and that fell to 17,125 the following season (largely due to a fans boycott that gained traction through the latter half of the season). Attendances for ATK and NorthEast United FC dropped from 50,707 to 11,703, and 26,729 to 8,217, respectively, in 2016-17 and 2017-18, and these figures haven't improved substantially since.

Hyderabad used to contribute the bulk of players to India's best generation of footballers between the 1950s and 1970s, while Bhubaneswar has become a hub of sorts for Indian sport in recent years. Matches at these venues could be just the tonic that ISL needs, especially considering how positively Jamshedpur has received the league.

Auditions for the Indian national team

India are in the middle of their World Cup 2022 and 2023 Asian Cup qualifying campaign, and have just put in an underwhelming performance  at home against Bangladesh.

Within a month of the ISL starting, India embark on two crucial away trips, to Afghanistan and Oman, inside five days in mid-November. Form and fitness for key Indian players will be followed with a keen eye, especially after Kerala Blasters defender Sandesh Jhingan sustained an ACL injury when training with the national team, which coach Igor Stimac reckons could keep him out for half a year. Any loss of form or fitness for the regulars could also open up avenues for younger players to get noticed.

A more competitive contest

Since the expanded 10-team league began in 2017-18, the league stages have been largely academic, with three or four teams at best showing any level of consistency. The last season, in particular, was such that within half a month of games, it would have been safe to bet on Bengaluru and FC Goa contesting the final.

With Antonio Habas returning to ATK, Eelco Schattorie moving from NorthEast United to Kerala Blasters, and two new clubs in the mix, it could make for a more open competition. Bengaluru should still start favourites, especially after having lured midfielder Raphael Augusto away from two-time champions Chennaiyin FC, but their AFC engagements in early 2020 could open up avenues for other clubs to put some pressure on them in the latter stages of the league.

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