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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Is Indian football on the cusp of disruption or destruction?

The proposed three-tier structure hugely benefits the ISL, but it also weakens the I-League and leaves the future of traditional clubs in doubt

On 17 May, Indian football witnessed a coup. The sport’s governing body, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), and its marketing partner, IMG-Reliance—which also happens to be the co-owners of the Indian Super League (ISL), proposed a three-tier league with the two-season-old ISL being at the top of the pyramid.

The I-League, India’s official league, approved by the Asian Football Confederation and Fifa, which has been running since 2006, will be relegated to the second tier. Other changes such as a rebranded Nehru Cup and a Super Cup (a new avatar for the Federation Cup) involving clubs from these three tiers are also being proposed.

What this means for traditional powerhouses such as Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and the Goan clubs, rich in history, fan support and prestige, is not yet known.

The history of association football leagues in India can be traced back to 1996, when the National Football League (NFL) was set up. The NFL started with a bang, with good broadcast coverage and players earning relatively big money. However, by 2006 the NFL had lost its sheen, as professional clubs such as FC Kochi started winding up and the league started losing its popularity and fan following. The same year, the AIFF rebranded the NFL as the I-League in a bid to professionalize the sport.

Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) was roped in as the title sponsor for the first three seasons and Zee Sports was the broadcaster for the rebranded league. But troubles started in 2009 as Zee Sports wanted to review the TV deal with the AIFF, as the league was not able to attract sponsors.

In 2010, the AIFF entered into a deal with IMG-Reliance to market the league. However, the league did not have a broadcaster for the 2010-11 season. Subsequently, IMG-Reliance managed to rope in a broadcaster, but the fortunes of the league did not really turn around.

The advent of the ISL in 2014 was termed as a game-changer for Indian football. The changes were obvious—better-quality broadcasting, promotions, big money and marketing, and glamour in the form of star-studded franchises with celebrity owners and well-known foreign players. IMG-Reliance also managed to bring in the Star Network, which holds a stake in the ISL, as the broadcaster.

However, it brought with it a set of uncertainties too. The Indian football calendar went through immense cutting and chopping to accommodate the ISL. It also brought up issues with player contracts, as players had to shuffle between I-League and ISL clubs in a single season.

Eighty-four Indian players were put up for a draft for the ISL’s first season in October-December 2014. These players returned to their parent clubs or were loaned out by ISL franchisees to I-League clubs as the I-League season started in January 2015. With I-League clubs such as Pune FC disbanding their senior team, some players faced employment troubles as well.

Within two seasons of its existence, the ISL has turned out to be a disruption in the Indian football landscape. While almost everyone agreed that a three-month-long tournament would not help Indian football, the ISL, with its marketing and promotion blitz, attracted fans otherwise apathetic towards local football.

Around 75 million television viewers watched the season opener between Atletico de Kolkata and Mumbai City FC in 2014, and the average stadium attendance for the season was around 23,000, which eclipsed the attendance figures of many European leagues.

With finances tight and no promotions, the I-League was already wilting under pressure. Mismanagement and a lack of effort on marketing and fan engagement by I-League clubs were partly to blame, though two-time champion Bengaluru FC is an exception.

IMG-Reliance, which held the rights to market the I-League, had already shifted focus to the ISL and its continued apathy towards the I-League did not help.

The football calendar had already gone for a toss, with India missing out on international friendlies due to the cramped domestic schedule. India played four friendlies in 2013—after the ISL started, it could play only two friendlies in 2014. In 2015, the team’s campaign for the 2019 World Cup qualifiers was marred by shorter camps and curtailed preparations because of conflicting schedules.

Indian fans were also getting increasingly disillusioned with the situation, as Fifa rankings nosedived to a lowest ever 171 in 2014. The call from fans for a merger of both the leagues was getting increasingly louder as they took to social media to express their anger over the situation. The change in Fifa leadership could have also played a role in fast-tracking the merger/restructure, as it is not accommodative of two parallel leagues running in a country. Fifa had banned Kenya in 2004 for having two parallel top-tier leagues and recently in 2015, Indonesia too got banned because of governmental interference over the running of the league.

A meeting was held in May at the AIFF headquarters in New Delhi, with representatives from 29 clubs across various divisions. AIFF’s marketing partners presented a “road map for Indian football". The ISL was unanimously declared the top tier in the country. A few more franchises are expected to join the ISL in the coming seasons, but there are no assurances that new teams will be from the I-League. It is also being said that these teams will have to pay up a franchise fee to join the top tier.

On paper, a three-tier system looks appealing, especially with assurances of at least two of these leagues being aired on TV. But a closer look will reveal that the situation might not be that rosy.

If two leagues, I-League and the second division, were difficult enough to promote before, with one more tier being added, marketing and promotions are going to be tougher. If the past two years are any indicators, the entire focus of the AIFF and IMG-Reliance would be on the ISL at the expense of the I-League.

With popular clubs such as Mohun Bagan and East Bengal finding it difficult to attract sponsors or the existing sponsors failing to live up to their commitments, there is no reason to believe that their fortunes will change if they are relegated to a second-tier league. So, it will be difficult for the teams to create any sustainable revenue streams.

It is also being said that there will be no opportunity for clubs to be promoted up to the top tier, or for top-tier clubs to be relegated to the lower divisions. The AIFF is assuring a share of revenue from the central pool for these clubs in the lower divisions, but it won’t be enough to prevent them from shutting down, as the chance to play in the top tier will be denied even if they perform well.

Some I-League clubs are already considering their next course of action. Even if there is quality broadcasting, it might take some time to attract sponsorship for these leagues. With most of these clubs operating on shoestring budgets, ranging between Rs3 crores to Rs15 crores, compared to Indian Super League clubs whose budgets are to the tune of Rs30 crores to Rs50 crores it will be difficult for them to sustain themselves and wait for a substantial chunk from the central pool.

In the past few years, the I-League has been directly inducting teams backed by corporate entities. Bengaluru FC owned by the JSW Group and DSK Shivajians FC owned by the DSK Group based in Pune are fine examples. With this new restructuring, these clubs, which have already paid up a capitation fee in the range of Rs3-5 crore to enter the top tier, may shy away from paying again to play in the ISL.

Other I-League clubs—ones with rich legacies and loyalties—and the relatively new ones that got promoted to the I-League from the lower tier, will feel short-changed by the new structure. Opinions do differ on the impact of these clubs on Indian football, but the truth is that these were the clubs that sustained the sport in the country while it was going through its lowest ebb. Most owners of these clubs have pumped in money to keep them alive without any returns whatsoever.

A restructuring that does not take these I-League clubs into account seems to be farcical at its best. The recent trend in Indian football has been the emergence of clubs from Mizoram and other north-eastern states. With no promotion or relegation, it will be virtually impossible to see clubs such as Aizawl FC or Royal Wahingdoh playing in the top tier.

On the whole, it looks like a plan that was stitched up hastily with only one purpose—to anoint the ISL as the top tier of Indian football.

A club official from Goa said on condition of anonymity, “The current move from AIFF is flimsy and short-sighted, and this is not in any way a reform. Clubs which have been supporting our football through difficult times are being totally sidelined by relegating us to a lower division."

The official also expressed his concern that such a move should not be at the cost of footballing hotbeds such as Goa and Kolkata.

Now, the big question is, will the new plan succeed? It looks like a difficult proposition, and will depend on how many I-League clubs will be willing to play in a second tier that doesn’t ensure promotion to the top tier. Clubs such as Sporting Clube de Goa and Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have already voiced their opinion against relegating them to a lower division.

Despite all this, if the AIFF and IMG-Reliance manage to pull it off, this three-tier system will offer opportunities to a vast pool of players. It could also kick off an ecosystem that will open up job opportunities for coaches and support staff.

Most importantly, having a single top-tier league and the subsequent divisions playing in tandem will help stabilize the Indian football calendar, which had gone totally haywire since the ISL started in 2014. This means India will be able to synchronize its calendar with the Fifa-approved match dates and play more international matches and hopefully better its position in the global rankings.

The Press Trust of India quoted AIFF chief Praful Patel as saying, “ISL has been a disruption in Indian football and it is because of this disruption that we are looking for solutions."

Hopefully, these disruptions would not wreak upon Indian football the kind of havoc that hit Air India, also one of Patel’s projects.

Unni Paravannur is a Bangalore-based Indian football commentator and runs the popular news portal www.footballnewsindia.in (Twitter- @fni).

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