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Parallel but unequal, ISL pushes I-League towards extinction

Atanu Mitra | Updated on: 22 July 2017, 12:36 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

After much deliberation about the impending overhaul of the Indian league football structure, the stakeholders have finally arrived at a stop-gap measure. Their solution, for now, is to run both the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League simultaneously for the upcoming 2017-18 season.

Old versus new

The I-League is the hemorrhaging top-tier football competition of the country. Over the last few years, it has seen a mass exodus of top clubs like Salgaocar, Dempo, Sporting Clube de Goa, JCT, and Pune FC due to its waning fan-base, unprofitable ecosystem, and nonchalant handling by the All India Football Federation (AIFF).

The Indian Super League (ISL), on the other hand, is a relatively newer phenomenon which is experiencing unprecedented popularity. It was started in 2014 by Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), a subsidiary of IMG-Reliance, the marketing partners of the AIFF, and has greatly outperformed the I-League.

For the first three seasons, the ISL was a standalone event, running for almost three-and-a-half months before the winter break. It succeeded where the I-League had failed miserably - grabbing eyeballs, ensuring top-class television coverage. By leveraging the brand value of celebrity team owners and marquee footballers, it tapped into a large section of young fans who were apathetic to domestic football. In only three years of its existence, it has become the fourth most attended football league in the world, trailing only the Bundesliga, Premier League and La Liga. In just the first three weeks of the first season, it had garnered 275 million TV viewers, numbers unheard of in contemporary Indian football.

In a nutshell, ISL as a product did not bring about any radical change, but was a commonsense solution to overcome the drawbacks of the existing league system. It had its own pitfalls also, including but not limited to the crammed schedule, foreign players past their prime, and lack of playing minutes for Indian footballers. However, unlike the I-League, it has been quick to address these issues and in trying to fix them. As a result most of the matches this season will be played on the weekends while the number of foreigners allowed in squad and starting XI have been trimmed to ensure quality recruitment and more opportunities for Indian footballers.

A piece of the pie

Despite its glitz, glamour and success, though, the ISL didn’t have what its older stepsister had – the recognition of being India’s top league competition. The Asian Football Confederation runs two continental championships which pits the best teams of all countries against each other. The Asian Champions League (ACL) is the premier one of the two, while the AFC Cup comprises the lower ranked clubs.

India has one spot in the ACL qualifying round - a defeat in which sends the team back to AFC Cup - and another berth in the AFC Cup. Upto last year, the champions of the I-League and the Federation Cup used to get these slots. After investing more than 100 crores in the first three years, the franchises of the cash-rich league were justifiably interested in entering the mainstream, which meant that the AIFF had to find a way to accommodate teams from both leagues.

The most intuitive way to do this would have been to merge the leagues to create a unified entity. However, the increasing chasm between the two leagues has been a major roadblock. The ISL franchises have deep pockets and all want to challenge for the title, while most I-League clubs either operate on shoestring budgets or face chronic financial struggles, with only a handful in with a chance of silverware.

As a Hindustan Times report has recently revealed, IMG-Reliance has always had the power to ‘reorganize’ or ‘reconstitute’ the top league as per the deal they had signed with AIFF. They have finally used their soft power to secure one of the AFC Cup spots for the ISL champions.

Leaving a sinking ship

With almost all top players who didn’t have a contractual obligation with the I-League clubs choosing the ISL, AIFF’s own league is set to become a second tier tournament devoid of all attributes necessary for success. Officials sitting at the Football House in Delhi have been in stern denial of this, stressing that the I-League still remains the gateway to the Asian Champions League (ACL). This either shows their inability to come to terms with the fact that their key functionality has been hijacked by their marketing partners, or their nonchalance over their failure to popularise domestic football in a market where European football has steadily grown.

As a result, Bengaluru FC, who have won two of the last three I-Leagues, chose to join the ISL bandwagon. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, meanwhile, have remained in the I-League, but not entirely by choice. Their desire to join the ISL resulted in periodic multi-party meetings. IMG-Reliance tried to arrange for sponsorships, but the elected office-bearers did not agree to give up their decision-making powers, while the clubs also had reservations about paying the participation fee of 15 crores, which is used to ensure quality promotion and TV telecast.

However, the biggest issue was the condition that if these two old clubs want to play in the high-profile league, they will have to play home matches outside Kolkata. This is because the ISL franchises had been assured by IMG-Reliance that they would have exclusive playing rights in the city for the first five years. The proposal didn’t make any sense, giving Atletico a chance to further its grip on the city at the cost of the two older clubs.

This is where the Kolkata clubs hoped AIFF would come to intervene and help to protect the right they enjoy not because they have paid some franchise fee but because of their role in keeping the football in the city up and running for decades. However, the AIFF failed to play the role of the mediator and the two Kolkata giants decided not to join the ISL at least for the next season.

This was a rare show of backbone by officials, who face media trial almost weekly for their many misdeeds and inefficiencies. A retrospective look at the stance would make it look increasingly imprudent as with every passing game-week, I-League, as well as the clubs, will further lose their relevance. But that should not stop one from lauding the officials for not bowing down to the unreasonable claim of playing outside their base city.

On that regard, it is ironic that AIFF, which has not let any chance slip by in taking digs at the older clubs after reaping dividends of their popularity for decades, will have to fall back again on the supporters of legacy sides to keep their own I-League alive.

Obviously humiliating for two clubs who have the richest history in Kolkata and the country, both Bagan and East Bengal had little choice but to remain with the I-League. At least for now.

The way forward

While ISL has taken some steps in taking Indian football out of its frustrating status-quo, it’s still a good distance away from realising its full potential, and faces its own challenges. Starting from this year, ISL matches will be held only on weekend evenings, meaning the ISL will have to compete with the major European leagues to entice fans. Meanwhile, there is still uncertainty about when the franchises may expect to reach the break-even.

With the number of foreign players now almost same in both leagues, and AFC status impending, the difference between the ISL and I-League is shrinking. However, the professionalism and intelligence that the former leverages gives it a clear edge going forward.

While the AFC has already communicated its preference for an 18-team league, they will not be eager to overrule AIFF’s judgement in the near future, in case the local body sticks to the parallel league structure.

The process of merging the two leagues will go on for a long time, but the element of uncertainty it has contributed in the short term is doing no good for most of the stakeholders. The AIFF has to clear this mess soon, but with its eroding sense of ethics and partisan approach to Indian football, one fears that the final verdict will only boost the popular narrative that its moral compass has been corrupted beyond repair.

Atanu Mitra has been covering Indian Football for five years now. He tweets @Atanu00

First published: 20 July 2017, 19:18 IST