Sunday’s draft was another historic moment in a defining year for Indian football. Ten teams spent Rs 37.33 crore in the Indian Super League draft - another emphatic announcement by a league which is now recognised by the Asian Football Confederations and FIFA.
One may be a hopeless romantic when it comes to sport but modern football cannot run without the power, the money and the glamour that was on show in Mumbai on Sunday. This is a glimpse of the future, which for the present, will run alongside the residual past of Indian football, the I-League, which has now been reduced to provide solace to clubs and fans who steadfastly hold on to long lost glory.
And even as the memories of the I-League now include the phenomenal achievement of Aizawl last season, there are clear indications that players want to play in the ISL. Delve a bit deeper into the differences between the two, and it is clear why.
In a bid to really understand the difference between the two leagues and why one is more attractive than another, The Field spoke with former and current players and managers, administrators, organisers and broadcasters, and most importantly, with fans and this is what they had to say while comparing the two.
Forget about the pitches, the training facilities, the stadium experience or the style of play. For a league, you first need players, and players need to be protected. For the first time a footballer in India saw a 40-page contract in the ISL. It is exhaustive and details everything while being legally binding - unlike the I-League contracts, which are popularly referred to as “tissue paper”. ISL contracts include medical and injury insurance and have no room for verbal adjustments. I-League contracts are flimsy in comparison, don’t provide cover to most players and have scant bonuses.
“The details are extensive in an ISL contract. It makes players feel safe. The I-League has become better over the years but there would always be issues of no payment in case players didn’t play,” says Ishfaq Ahmed, who has played in both the leagues (East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Kerala Blasters among other clubs). The ISL has a set salary for players — a minimum amount disbursed to them even in case they sit out the whole season with injury. This of course, is covered by an insurance to safeguard both parties.
There have been cases where I-League clubs have chalked up new contracts without players having any knowledge of it. The case of young winger Abinash Ruidas was the talking point ahead of the draft as the player wanted to be part of ISL but East Bengal produced another contract which bound him to their club without his awareness. He was ultimately picked up by Mumbai City FC on Sunday and it remains to be seen what stand the Kolkata club will now take.
Clubs have at times also sent different contracts to the AIFF for registration, to the player to sign, and to a loaning ISL club for a loan fee. The AIFF is planning to make all contracts public to stop this from happening.
“There is lack of transparency in player contracts. So many contracts are being floated. Sometimes, we have come across three contracts. We have decided to put an end to such madness and asked clubs to register contracts within 15 days. If they fail to do so, contracts will be null and void,” AIFF general secretary Kushal Das told The Times of India earlier this month.
Nirmal Chhetri has played for both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. He’s also played for Mohammedan SC in 2013-14. He still hasn’t been paid by the club — they owe him Rs 12 lakhs. His latest club DSK haven’t paid him 4 months’ salary.
“I-League clubs may have history and legacy but they can’t not pay players and treat them like this,” he said. “It takes time to file cases and get money from these clubs. Footballers don’t speak up for fear of their future. For the first time in my career I am home without a contract and hope to get drafted in the ISL,” he adds.
Nobody works for free. Also, nobody likes it when they’re not paid on time. While the I-League and the ISL both use bank transfers to pay (sorry to shatter your bubble if you thought there were under-the-table exchanges of briefcases full of cash), the timing of salary payment and even the possibility of being paid wildly differs. DSK Shivajians and Mumbai FC players have not been paid on time this season. DSK’s players still went through the gruelling schedule of the Federation Cup in Bhubaneswar. A source close to the club also mentioned how their manager Dave Rodgers paid from his own pocket to buy the team tracksuits from an apparel store.
“Not everyone is a Sunil Chhetri so I would not have held it against a player if they made the switch to the ISL. Every footballer needs the chance to go and make money. Players don’t care about which league they play - they care about playing in a professional set-up. But we hear of instances where Sony Norde (Mohun Bagan) didn’t receive his man of the match prize money and players see this. They observe the process and want to be in a better place. So while fan commitment is more in the I-League, we hope a longer ISL can also achieve the same,” says Ullas Marar, who has been supporting Bengaluru throughout their existence and is a regular traveller to away games.
We’ve learnt from multiple players that the maximum salary delay they’ve faced in the ISL is that of a week.
3) Travel, lodging and food
The AIFF pays I-League clubs a travel subsidy of around Rs 70 lakhs. ISL clubs do not receive a subsidy from the central body to spend on travel — they do, however, get a share from the central pool of sponsorship money. ISL teams are almost always housed in 5-star hotels. I-League clubs have more often than not adjusted when it comes to lodging and travel arrangements — quite a ruckus ensued when East Bengal could not head back to Kolkata from Bhubaneswar immediately after their Federation Cup 2017 exit, with top players being photographed travelling unreserved in trains as well. This has never happened in the ISL despite the hectic schedule they follow.
Bengaluru FC and DSK have both set examples in terms of diet for their players. A top goalkeeper told Scroll that there was still a chai-biscuit culture which existed even at Kolkata clubs.
4) Training facilities
There have been lots of instances when big names came to the ISL as coaches, didn’t really get involved too much with players and training and left before they could even teach a player how to better his tackle. Some, like Nicolas Anelka, crashed and burnt. But there have also been those, like Marco Materazzi, who have been heavily involved in developing sides. In the I-League, training facilities may not be as top-notch as the ISL, but more time with teams has allowed coaches to imprint their principles on the pitch. With the ISL set to extend to a full-fledged league, it is yet to be seen whether managers will be able to apply their methodology. As for facilities, the ISL has guidelines for clubs to use top quality training pitches and equipment for teams. The I-League seems cash-strapped in this regard bar a few clubs. There are weekly fitness tests in the ISL with sports scientists employed on a regular basis. The I-League is more for a coach who dabbles in a little bit of everything — but one cannot quite imagine all the clubs employing specific people for specific roles — which is how it should ideally be.
5) Broadcast quality and setup
Until last season, the I-League used an 8-camera setup to broadcast matches. One game would cost anything between INR 7-13 lakhs to produce. But it’s not about the number of cameras, it’s about the production quality. Indian football fans are heavy consumers of the Premier League and Champions League, and are used to better coverage. But it comes down to economics. The I-League is not a product heavily in demand among broadcasters. That drives advertising revenue down — and football is not really very ad-conducive with just one break in between. Less money means a lower quality of production and this is not the broadcaster’s fault — television channels don’t exist for charity, they exist for profit, like every other business.
The ISL meanwhile, has used anywhere between 14 to 24 cameras but their producers were experts, many of whom came from abroad. The season 1 final cost around Rs 70 lakhs to produce and the average cost of producing a match is anywhere between Rs 55-60 lakhs. The equipment per se is not better — it’s the people behind it — the producers, the directors, the people who cut replays and freeze the frame during an offside or beam a fancy graphic on screen. But the ISL is also blooding more Indians into the system. There were three foreign producers in ISL 1, one foreign producer in ISL 2 and not a single foreign producer in ISL 3. We are slowly moving towards an Indian league produced by Indian people.
6) On the pitch and at the stadium
On the pitch the ISL has a completely different vibe. One may call out the fluff — the sponsored moments and awards, players who come for a short well-paid exotic holiday in India and legends who come and go with little impact. But there have been successful imports as well, like Elano and Mendoza Valencia (both Chennaiyin FC) and even Florent Malouda (Delhi Dynamos).
“People talk about age, but their talent never fades, only fitness is an issue. While the speed of the game depends from team to team, the ISL is obviously of a higher technical quality,” says Eugeneson Lyngdoh, who has played in the I-League for Bengaluru and in the ISL for FC Pune City.
Lyngdoh also spoke about the feeling at the stadium while playing: “In the I-League, the atmosphere is dull. In the ISL you feel like something is happening.”
“There was a proper initiative by FC Pune City to get people into the stands. Their orange army seats in the corner at The Balewadi were famous because that was the singing stand. DSK Shivajians tried to replicate getting people to the stadium in buses and creating a carnival at the stadium but it fell flat after two games,” says Nikhil Jitendran, who has watched Pune FC, Bharat FC, DSK and Pune City all play in the city.
There has been a lot of debate about the ISL killing the I-League, but try putting the players’ interest ahead of history, legacy and other intangible feelings and it’s a no-brainer that one league is miles ahead in terms of organisation than the other. That doesn’t mean the I-League is useless — but it is quite clear that clubs need to change with time — which they haven’t. Riding on the shoulders of the ISL is not something to be ashamed of, it should instead be seen as an opportunity and challenge to grow.