Is an ISL/I-League merger on the cards?
As with any new endeavour, there are naysayers.
Former India skipper and ex-Bury FC player, Bhaichung Bhutia, is anti-merger.
He believes that a union at this stage could dilute the standards of the ISL.
To have one league is very important, but at the moment it is not right to merge ISL with I-League and I don’t it should happen also. Two to three years down the line it can be thought and be implemented but currently it should not be done.
I think the inaugural ISL season was really successful, top foreign players are coming to India and the Indian players are getting to learn a lot from them. Last year players like Alessandro Del Piero came and now Roberto Carlos and Lucio are coming in.
To make it one league, we really need to wait and watch. At the moment I think ISL has done a lot for India and it should not be merged. I think I-League should be taken to a standard where ISL is at the moment and then think about merging. The ISL has set a high standard and its level should not be pulled down. First standard of I-League should be upgraded and the merging should be thought about.
It is just because of the ISL that Indian football fans have started watching football. It is really sad when you see I-League matches being played in almost empty stadiums, and when ISL is happening in the same place, thousands of people turni.
The authorities should step up and take a note of it about upgrading the level of I-League and then focus on merging the two leagues. All the state associations also have to come forward and help in upgrading the I-League. We also have to see if the teams and players get a chance to train in better facilities, better ground.
The ISL is beloved by the players with most, if not all, aspiring to be members of the elitist league. The current format allows only six foreign players to be fielded by a club in a game. The other five have to be domestic footballers.
The Indian Premier League is much more supportive of home-grown talent.
The rules state that each squad will have:
The ISL rules allow up to 17 domestic players , four of which could have been purchased in the players auction. The rules also require that each club have at least two domestic players under 23 years in the squad. The minimum squad size is 22 and the maximum is 26. Indian players can be either free agents or loaned from from the Hero I-League.
FC Goa co-owner Dattaraj Salgaocar also does not believe that a fusion of the two leagues is a possibility.
Speaking to Times of India, he said:
Certainly not in the short term. The dynamics are different, especially with I-League teams qualifying for AFC tournaments. Add to this, we have to look at the financial implications of a merger … A longer league will adversely affect the financials of a team, unless the revenue model changes and all franchisees get a proper share of the sponsorship and broadcasting revenues.
Desh Gaurav Sekhri, a sports lawyer, blogging for the Economic Times, has his own viewpoint about the proposed unification.
While he agrees that the ISL is too abbreviated a league to do the sport in India any good and an extended season is the need of the hour, he does not believe that a joining of forces is the solution.
The I-league has been a product of the team-owners’ passion for football, and an outlet for stirring the loyalties of die-hard football enthusiasts for their respective teams.
The ISL on the other hand is a commercially driven entity, promoted and supported by the experience and monetary clout of its promoters. It has focussed on a more international flavour, and in its short window, excites the fan-bases who are as likely to flock to the stadiums to see their favourite international stars of the past as to become die-hard city-team loyalists.
A merger of both leagues would not work, because teams in each are established with different ideals. The I-league teams are bankrolled by their promoters, and are rarely profitable. Most would be valued at significantly less than a comparable ISL team, due to the latters’ entry price, a cap on the number of franchises in the league, and the guaranteed sponsorship money that the ISL teams receive.
A combination will add six-seven teams to the mix and may still not allow teams to make profits or turn the finances of the existing I-League teams around quickly enough.
Sekhri suggests a series of playoffs between the I-League and ISL champions. Also, a series of games featuring all-star teams from both leagues that would play each side in the opposing league is another option.
The ISL as the sole flagship league in India would be a folly, and one which could be attributed to the false optimism that the Indian Premier League has given to Indian sports. The IPL is only able to succeed because it is backed by a complete domestic season to develop cricketers, and the successful Indian national team has a huge following by itself.
Football, if it loses the I-league won’t have the former, and given its current state, the national team is very far from the latter. Unless the ISL becomes an extended league along the lines of the Premier League or La Liga, a merger of the two will not only be a failure commercially, it will also set Indian football back another decade or so.
Sekhri has a point. Indian football requires a league that goes on for at least five-six months and featuring 90-120 games for it to match the best of European leagues.
The Chinese Super League has 16 teams. It begins in Feb-March and ends in November-December. The top three teams plus the winner of the Chinese FA Cup qualify for the AFC Champions League. The bottom two teams are relegated out of the competition to the China League One and the top two teams are promoted up. The I-League,which is somewhat analogous,functions similarly with relegation and promotion with the I-League second division. However, no club has till now participated in the AFC Champions League.
The J-League has an even more interesting format. The year is divided into two halves—two seasons—with each half crowning a champion. At the end of the two stages, each stage’s champion and the top two-point accumulators in each stage take part in a playoff to decide the league champion.
The above is similar to what Sekhri recommends except at least three more teams in the fray. That could be another possibility. This is also the format followed by many Latin American leagues who term it ‘Apertura (opening)’ and ‘Clausura (closing)’.
The I-League and ISL could be treated as two different stages. Standards across the I-league would have to be raised though. This could also be the blueprint for a melding in the future. It certainly calls for more teams and a longer season. The J-League features 18 teams.
This makes a case for a non-merger of resources and teams given the current scenario.
What are your thoughts? Over to you.
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…
What he said:
“When I first told my family and friends about signing on with the ISL they did not believe me, they thought it was a joke! My family asked if I had gone crazy!”
Spanish World Cup winner, Joan Capdevila, is not deranged but had a hard time convincing his family members that he had not lost his senses when he conveyed his decision to play for NorthEast United Football Club (NEUFC) in the still nascent Indian Super League (ISL).
The left-back is the team’s marquee player.
The ISL begins in October this year and will run till December. It will have eight teams.Each team has one marquee player and seven foreigners. Only two of the seven foreign players can be directly recruited; the other five are are picked in the foreign player draft. Each team will also have 14 Indian footballers.
“When I showed them (my family) all the proof, they asked me if I was sure about this. But now since the ISL momentum is picking up, they are looking forward to my updates on my experience. My friends may also come down to see me but my family unfortunately will not.”
The presence of many Spaniards in the league has contributed to some excitement in Spain too.
“To be honest, there wasn’t much buzz in Spain about the ISL at the start. Now with more international players signing with teams, the Spanish fans are excited to see this amalgamation of known and unknown talents. I am also eager for the games to begin as it will globalise the football industry further.”
“This is very different from other leagues. In India, it is just starting and this is a very nice beginning. It is a very nice project which is going to be for a lot of years. Indian football is going to grow and would call a lot of attention of other players for sure. It is a nice project for the future to be put like a league for the whole year. After many years, it is going to be the main league of India for sure.”
Actor-producer John Abraham, also a co-owner of the NEUFC side, said:
“We feel that this is an incubation league. This is to quickstart the interest of football in the country. We are looking at a very long term vision, that we believe that this two-and-half month league would probably at some point be an eight month or nine month league.
Maybe it could merge with the premier league or it could be the Premier League. I believe that the ISL will become a seven or eight month league, given a gestation period of three to five years.
Initially, it (opting for overseas players past their prime) would help. It is very important to get players with that kind of experience on board. Having players like Capdevila and other marquee players, it will help. I think it will help in the short run initially to spark off the interest and be a catalyst but in the long run of course we need to re-strategize and understand what we need to do.
As far as NorthEast United is concerned, we are very clear that our focus is young domestic players. As of today, we have the youngest team in the ISL by five years. And we will make sure by next year, we will be a far younger team.”
Meanwhile, Capdevila feels that Spain should not abandon the tiki-taka style of play.
“It’s time for change and bring in some new players.
I hope Spain is at their highest level again from tomorrow but honestly it’s going to take longer.
For the next Euro Cup it is going to be difficult but I hope to see them challenging again for the 2018 World Cup. But I am not sure yet as the players are very young.
The style of playing for Spain is going to be the same, just the players are going to change.
It has been the style for many, many years and I will be surprised if (coach) Vicente del Bosquecan now change their style of play.”
What Capdevila really meant:
“India is not known for its footballing prowess. And you want to play in the heat and humidity? Are you crazy? What about the language? And the food?”
What he definitely didn’t:
“I’m not a spring chicken anymore. India will do nicely. Let’s just term the terms—pre-retirement benefits.”