The All India Football Federation (AIFF) finds itself at the crossroads.
On one side, they have the Indian Super League (ISL) that has corporate sponsors, star coaches and players, Bollywood glamour and Star Sports.
On the other, they have the national tourney, the I-League that languishes with failing clubs, poor marketing and little or no television audiences.
Praful Patel, the AIFF president, is the man in the centre of the storm.
Both tournaments want longer terms but that can happen only at the cost of the other.
It is a fine balancing act. And the AIFF is wary of treading on anyone’s toes.
They do not wish to do away with the old without checking that the new will work out.
The I-League has tradition and history on its side.
The ISL has deep pockets and committed owners.
Patel does not believe that the I-League is doomed for extinction—yet.
There’s no question [that the I-League will stick around]. It is the league of India. ISL is a tournament — like the Rovers Cup or a Durand Cup. It is a tournament — not a permanent league as a league of the country recognised by FIFA. I-League has to remain as the principal league of the country.
An immediate merger with the ISL is not on the cards either.
The I-League teams don’t have any illusions about their financial future. Two Pune clubs, Pune FC and Bharat FC, have already put up their hands as being candidates for dropping out from the league.
A meeting of ISL promoters IMG-Reliance and I-League club representatives led to no resolution of the football calendar.
I-League clubs felt that new challenges have come after ISL’s success. This was a meeting on how to strengthen the I-League and make it more marketable. After ISL, television viewership of I-League also went up. While it may not translate into tangible benefits immediately, it shows one has had a spin-off effect on another. It will be better to take this to the right direction.
Patel warned that even a merger is no guarantee that teams will not continue to lose money.
A committee has been formed to look into a possible merger.
Even ISL clubs lose a lot of money. But we need to bring in people who have to be committed to that. If somebody is committed and passionate they will come forward. It’s not the first time clubs have gone out. I would like to see clubs remain but that won’t affect Indian football in the long run.
The I-League clubs have historically been there. Clubs are open to the merger but it would be unfair to say it’s done. There will be issues, because there are legacy clubs in Kolkata and Goa too. The ISL being a city based tournament, the question is how we integrate. Therefore this subgroup has been formed to give us an agenda.
The AIFF chief believes that a merger may take two to three years.
The I-League begins in January and ends by late May.
The ISL has a three month slot beginning October and ending in December.
AIFF general secretary, Kushal Das, maintained that they are not being pressurised by FIFA or AFC into committing to just one league.
Across the world, we have just one league and we have to follow the best practices. This was an excellent meeting and everyone agreed that, for the sake of Indian football, all of us have to work together.
I-League team owners are not convinced that they are not the football association’s step-children.
A disappointed club official said:
There was no commitment from the AIFF or genuine concern for I-League clubs, two of whom are close to shutting down. There was no discussion on how we can enhance the popularity of the I-League. All we are hearing of is another committee and we have seen all of this before.
Das insisted that the AIFF has a roadmap for merging the two leagues.
We have a roadmap which is to have one league within two-three years. But we have to chalk it out on how to go about it. There will be a shake-up in Indian football. There has not been any impact so far but it will happen in future and we have to sort this out. More or less all the teams — ISL clubs and I-League clubs and IMG Reliance — are of the opinion to have one league.
The AIFF general secretary also clarified that they are not keen on forming new I-League teams from existing cities specifically from Bengaluru.
Pune has three clubs, two of whom—Bharat FC and Pune FC—have threatened to shut shop.
The clubs claimed to have difficulties forming fan bases.
The I-League currently consists of 11 teams.
|Bengaluru FC||Bangalore||Karnataka||Sree Kanteerava Stadium||24,000|
|Bharat FC||Pune||Maharashtra||Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Complex||22,000|
|East Bengal||Kolkata||West Bengal||Salt Lake Stadium||68,000|
|Mohun Bagan||Kolkata||West Bengal||Salt Lake Stadium||68,000|
|Pune FC||Pune||Maharashtra||Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Complex||22,000|
|Royal Wahingdoh||Shillong||Meghalaya||Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium||30,000|
|Salgaocar||Vasco da Gama||Goa||Fatorda Stadium||19,800|
|Shillong Lajong||Shillong||Meghalaya||Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium||30,000|
|Sporting Goa||Panaji||Goa||Fatorda Stadium||19,800|
The bid is already open and we will not take another team from Bengaluru as we already have BFC there. When BFC came into existence we had already made it clear there would not be another team in near future as per the contractual obligation.
Prodded on the subject of clubs folding, the AIFF chief, Praful Patel, said:
I want each and every club to keep functioning. But clubs do close down in football and a lot depends on financial planning.
The Indian players do not seem to have a problem with the proposed merger of the leagues.
Pune FC defender, Anas Edathodika, said:
The standard of the ISL is pretty good. There were several World Cup players in the ISL in 2014 and the youngsters can learn a lot from them. But if these great players could be involved in Indian football for a longer period, we could learn even more from them.
If the ISL is merged with the I-League, then we could have a longer tournament which would give Indians more opportunities to play alongside these foreigners. It would also force the I-League clubs to become more professional in their approach and that can only be good for the game.
Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri has no qualms either.
I would love to have just one league in the country…. where there will be 16-18 teams and which goes on for 11 months and there will be a format of Federation Cup like the FA Cup in England. I just hope things work, like I-League, ISL and the Federation and AIFF sit together and chalk it out. It would be great to have that for Indian football.
With so much said about the non-viability of two independent leagues and the problems with the existing I-League and with the players all for it, it must seem a cinch that a merger is the best thing possible for the future of the sport in India.
Is it, really? More on that later.
Ask any Indian sports lover if he or she follows soccer and the answer almost always is an unequivocal ‘Yes’.
The Indian soccer fan is well aware of what’s happening in the world of soccer and follows European club soccer with a passion that’s drawing foreign clubs to form local fan clubs and try to tap local talent and markets.
But query the same Indian fan whether he or she knows what’s happening in Indian soccer and they will reward you with a blank stare.
The state of Indian soccer has never been worse.
The Indian Super League that was launched with much fanfare last year promised to lift the sport out of its doldrums.
But it’s early days yet and it may take some time to see any real results.
As this writer sees it, for now, it attracts has-beens from Europe and South America who would probably have eked out the rest of their careers at their home-town clubs but have now been given a new lease of life—at least, for two months—by the lucre on offer in the ISL, salary caps notwithstanding.
Meanwhile, the I-League, which is the heartbeat of Indian soccer, languishes with teams threatening to pull out and the AIFF finding it hard to find replacements.
The national soccer team is not faring too well either.
They are ranked 155 in the world. It is hard to believe that at one time—in Feb 1950—India were 8th in the standings.
The current side have yet to register a win in the Asian qualifiers, losing their three games so far.
The ISL promises glitz , glamour and riches for the Indian players on display. They are suddenly earning crores overnight.
But how far will it take the junior players? The established stars earn their moolah and rightly so.
The I-League can function as a feeder tourney but it’s dying out.
The I-League itself is a recent phenomenon re-launching the National Football League in a new avatar in 2007-08.
The first six seasons were dominated by Goan clubs.
Bengaluru FC sprung a surprise in 2014 and this year it was old warhorse Mohun Bagan that claimed the refurbished title.
The AIFF is considering merging the two tournaments, the ISL and the I-League.
A committee has been formed to look into the possibility and how it could be made to work.
That will be the subject of my next article. Till then…