The fact that Indian football is going through a turbulent phase is evident as daylight. Facing severe criticism from FIFA and AFC for the dual-league system, the All India Football Federation has been under tremendous pressure to find a proper roadmap for Indian football. However, the AIFF’s indifference has meant that there is still no clarity regarding this. A merger between India’s two football leagues (the Indian Super League and the I-League) looks to be the way ahead, but AIFF president Praful Patel’s recent statement that the merger would not be happening any time soon seems a major setback. For someone who has started following Indian football since the inception of the ISL three years back, the current scenario might appear a tad confusing. Therefore we at SportsKPI feel it would be a good idea to reflect on Indian football’s recent history, its league structure and the challenges AIFF now faces.
National Football League
In 1996, the AIFF introduced the National Football League in an attempt to professionalize Indian football. Starting off as a single tier league, the NFL had 2 tiers in the subsequent years and even 3 in its final season. Although the league succeeded in creating a proper league system that had been absent over the years, the league was not a commercial success, and subsequently saw clubs like FC Cochin suffer huge losses and eventually shut down.
In an attempt to rejuvenate the NFL, the league was rechristened and reintroduced as I-League in 2007. The main reason for the decline of the NFL was that the majority of clubs were vastly unprofessional in their approach and it is this aspect that the AIFF tried to address with the I-League. They also tried to commercialize the league better. And credit where due: the AIFF actually did succeed in doing so to an extent in the I-League’s initial years. In the 2009-10 season the I-League was expanded to include 14 teams – the highest an Indian top tier league has ever seen till date. There were teams from 7 different cities, thus making it a more pan-India tournament, unlike in previous years when sides were primarily from Goa, Kolkata and Mumbai.
However, the AIFF failed to build on the initial momentum, and clubs started sustaining heavy losses. With revenue from merchandise, ticket sales and broadcasting rights all going directly to the All India Football Federation, instead of the clubs, most of the I-League clubs had to rely on their main sponsors for funding. But with the AIFF not doing enough to promote or market the league, finding sponsors became hard for the clubs.
It was in such a scenario that the AIFF signed a 15 year deal with IMG-Reliance, worth Rs. 700 crore, entitling the latter as AIFF’s commercial partner. The agreement meant IMG-Reliance had all commercial rights to football in India, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights. The deal also mandated IMG-Reliance to brand and market the Indian national team, the domestic competitions and the participating teams.
The deal was looked up to with great expectations as IMG was one of the world’s leading sports management companies, their ventures including even the English Premier League. However, even months after the deal was signed, IMG-Reliance did nothing significant towards developing the league. On the contrary, the agreement meant previous broadcasters Zee Sports no longer had broadcasting rights for the league. IMG-Reliance’s neglectful approach saw the league go ahead without a proper broadcaster for a whole season and a half. Powerhouse clubs like Mahindra United and JCT FC eventually shut down, and the AIFF did nothing to prevent the withdrawal of the iconic clubs.
Till date, the AIFF and IMG-Reliance have continued this step-mother approach with the I-League; they have rarely shown the kind of zeal they display for the promotion of the ISL. A clear example was in 2014-15, when the season’s top two sides Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan went head-to-head on the final day. Hardly any hype was created even during such a dramatic situation. A similar scenario in the EPL or the La Liga might have sent the whole world into frenzy. The reason behind IMG-Reliance’s apathy can be zeroed down to the fact that the ISL is their baby project, while promotion of the I-League would not benefit them much. Clubs like Pune FC, Royal Wahingdoh, Dempo, Sporting Club De Goa, and Salgaocar have all withdrawn from the I-League in recent years, citing AIFF’s reluctance to give enough assurances regarding the league’s future.
Indian Super League (ISL)
The ISL came into existence in 2014 amidst much fanfare and was welcomed with wide arms. 8 franchisees were inducted through a bidding process. The majority of ISL revenue goes to the kitty of IMG rather than AIFF, and therefore IMG never hesitated in going all out for commercialization of the ISL. The fact that they managed to rope in 7 different channels for telecasting the ISL (even several home matches of the National Team were played without proper telecast) highlights the difference between their approaches to the ISL and other matches. But to be fair, the ISL does have its advantages – providing players with better facilities, infrastructure and exposure. Its success has nevertheless had a major knock-on effect to India’s football structure, placing the future of league football in India in a turbulent situation.
The Ongoing Issue
It was initially planned that the ISL teams would periodically be integrated into the I-League. But ISL sides soon began stating their interests to be India’s top tier clubs. The tournament’s immediate success only encouraged the AIFF to dance to ISL clubs’ tunes. However, the AFC refused to accept the ISL as the official league of India. This was because, one, AFC deems that ISL should run for longer to be India’s official league, and two, that the clubs don’t play enough matches to be eligible to take part in the two continental tournaments. Further, AFC and FIFA regulations insist that a league without relegation and promotion cannot be approved as the official league of a country. Moreover, ISL franchisees are yet to align themselves with several of the licensing criteria set by the governing body.
All this meant the ISL needed to shed the current format and be a longer tournament in terms of number of matches as well as duration. If this happened, either the I-League would have to be demoted to being the nation’s 2nd division or a merger would be necessary. I-League clubs and fans unanimously trashed the idea of the league becoming the 2nd division, and clubs from both tournaments began calling for a merger.
Subsequently a merger was in the pipeline where the top tier would be called the ISL with 3 teams from I-League – Bengaluru FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. The rest of the I-League teams would play in the 2nd division. Given that only these 3 teams would be immediately able to meet the AIFF’s heavy financial demands, the Federation had confidence in this plan. However, the unexpected victory of minnows Aizawl FC in this year’s I-League has put their plan in jeopardy. The club has even warned the AIFF that it would go on a worldwide strike if they were not allowed to continue in the top tier of Indian football. This has put a spoke in the wheels of merger plans, and has prompted AIFF to go back and say that no merger would happen any time soon.
What does the future hold?
It is clear that the AIFF and IMG-Reliance are trying to play all their cards to get ISL top tier status. AIFF president Mr. Patel recently had a meeting with AFC officials, and the Asian governing body are expected to give an official reply on Indian football’s roadmap by May 25th 2017. However, the forerunners of Indian football have moved shrewdly by claiming that the ISL and I-League would run parallel over a 7 month period. They’ve issued tenders inviting up to 3 new teams for the ISL before May 24th – a day before AFC is to reply.
This move is clearly to pressurize the big 3 I-League sides into taking this offer and be a part of the more high-profile league. With ISL sides having better financial backing and infrastructure, it could well be that top players would opt for a move to the ISL if the leagues are run in parallel. That would effectively kill an already feeble I-League. The I-League ‘Big 3’ would be wary of such a scenario, and might be forced into considering the offer.
At this point, the future looks bleak for the I-League. It is appalling to see the inconsiderate approach of Indian football’s top honchos towards the primary league and its clubs. This is especially so, considering the I-League’s contributions when Indian football was meandering through tough waters. The most practical approach towards the merger would be to include all ISL sides and a minimum of 8 sides from the I-League in the top tier; it is a fair move given that the I-League sides have been playing in the first division up to this season. To relegate them to accommodate ISL sides would be unfair.
However, the Federation has not even considered this option and instead preferred to strangle the I-League, with moves like the one-city-one-club rule. They’ve even discussed doing away with relegation and promotion (with respect to the top tier) for the next 7 years! Although the AIFF promises marketing and telecast of the 2nd division, their track record does not give much hope. It is difficult to see what motivation teams would have to play in the 2nd division, in such a scenario.
The only hope that the I-League sides now have is AFC’s awaited proposal. The clubs would really hope their interests would be safeguarded. The AFC would not be expected to let the dual league system go on for long, making a merger a necessity. In that case, it is important that the I-League clubs and the players show solidarity, and push for the inclusion of as much I-League clubs as possible. Moreover, there must be onus on ensuring there is promotion and relegation, at least from the third season onwards.
With India set to host the U-17 World Cup in October and the National team improving its ranking considerably in recent times, it is not all gloom for Indian football. If the AIFF manages to come up with an efficient roadmap for the league structure, to protect the best interests of all parties involved, then it is fair to say the sleeping giant of world football could be made to wake up.
Featured Image Credit : Inkhel.com
(Article written by Mishal Mohammed Thanveer – Football Analyst at SportsKPI)