The seventh season of the Indian Super League (ISL) will be off and running on Friday, though this edition will look different in so many ways.
First and foremost, the entire tournament will be played in empty stadiums. Returning to competitive football and playing without fans in attendance will be tough for the players.
The new scenario brings back memories of an old match. The venue was the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium in Kochi and India were taking on the mighty Iraq in the semifinals of the 1997 Nehru Cup. With over 50,000 fans screaming their lungs out for us, we fought gallantly till the end, feeding off the energy of the passionate crowd. The adrenaline and the vibe helped the whole team push harder as we gave our fancied opponents a run for their money.
Blasters have one of the most vociferous fan bases in the ISL. Their support will be really missed.
Nevertheless, football without fans is the new normal and we have seen matches being played in empty stadiums in the UEFA Champions League and in top-flight leagues like the English Premier League, La Liga and the Serie A.
Looking at the brighter side, the entry of two champion clubs from Kolkata - Mohun Bagan and East Bengal - into the ISL, is exciting. Their century-old iconic rivalry will be continued on a new platform, providing football fans with plenty of mouth-watering action.
Most teams have changed their core team of players for the new season. Every side looks strong and it is difficult to pick a clear favourite.
Certainly it augurs well for the league as well as Indian football. As all the matches will be played across three venues in Goa, the schedule is smooth with minimum travel. It will be a blessing in disguise for the teams.
This time around Kerala Blasters look solid and well-balanced, at least on paper. Blasters have a star-studded squad, but we have seen coaches like Zinedine Zidane who look beyond the hype and select players who fit into their playing style. I must say the Blasters management and the coach Kibu Vicuna have shown great professionalism while picking up players for the new season.
(The writer is a former captain of the Indian football team)