“Long live ISL, I-League is dead” ran the rather fatalistic headline on The Times of India’s sport pages on Thursday. It was a direct consequence of an important meeting the All India Football Federation held on Tuesday in Delhi with various stakeholders of Indian football. The AIFF provided a prospective roadmap which, if implemented, could bring about sweeping changes in the structure of Indian club football.
With its proposed roadmap, the AIFF aimed to respond to the strange dichotomy of a country possessing two separate football leagues. After the Indian Super League came into existence in 2014, the Indian club football scene made for absurd viewing – the ISL, for all its glamour and superstar owners, has no footballing context and is more of a glorified exhibition tournament.
On the other hand, its poorer cousin, the I-League, despite being recognised by global football bodies as India’s official football league, suffered from a glaring lack of crowds and patronage. You're not the only one who might spot the similarity: the Indian Premier League versus the Ranji Trophy.
There have been frequent calls for the two leagues to be merged but the AIFF has not decided to go down this route. Instead, it has proposed that the ISL becomes the country’s main league from 2017 onward, with the number of participating clubs being increased to ten from eight.
The I-League, consequently will be renamed League One and will run one layer below the premier tier, with League Two running further down. It has also been proposed that the prestigious Federation Cup be converted into the Super Cup, where 28 teams can participate with the winners and the runners-up qualifying for Asian club competitions.
Strangely, the ISL in its proposed format will not have any system of promotion or relegation, a common facet of all football leagues all over the world. On the other hand, clubs in League 1 and League 2 will be promoted and relegated according to their performances.
Perhaps this is in deference to the commercial needs of big-ticket owners who will thus be assured of a place in the League in perpetuity for their teams. But if no new teams can get in, won't this make the ISL a exclusive club? “Where is the meritocracy if you are the best team in the league below for three years but as you have less money, you are deemed unable to compete?,” said Stevie Grieve, a football coach and analyst. “There is no incentive for clubs in the league below to develop a club properly.”
Goodbye classic football clubs?
According to the AIFF, new clubs will be added to the newly revamped ten-team ISL through a tender process. But that has predictably led to wariness among some of the older Indian legacy clubs. It is being speculated that among the current clubs participating in the I-League, only Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC may be able to buy their way into the ISL.
This has already led to misgivings among the big Goan – Sporting Clube de Goa, Salgaocar, Dempo FC – with Peter Vaz, the president of Sporting Clube de Goa, questioning the merits of the new structure.
Even the Kolkata clubs are unhappy. “Clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have contributed immensely to Indian football for many years,” said Shanti Ranjan Dasgupta, an official at East Bengal Football Club. “It is insulting for clubs like us to have to follow a bidding process to join the ISL. We have made our concerns clear to the AIFF on Wednesday and hopefully something will come out of it.”
“We are now looking for solutions,” said Praful Patel, president of the AIFF. And the Indian football body is hopeful that this is at least a first step. An AIFF official, on condition of anonymity, asked, “If the new system fails, then we will go back to the old one. But what is the harm in at least trying it out? Is not the proposed structure better than what is happening currently where stadiums hardly see fans coming in to watch matches?”
It is important to remember that this is not a final declaration – it's still a proposal. An overhaul was long due – Indian football has been suffering from a lack of structure aimed at excellence, and needs course correction desperately. But is this the right choice?