Indian Football

Having two simultaneous leagues throws up another big problem for Indian football

Including pre-season training, an Indian footballer’s season barely lasts seven months.

The All Indian Football Federation thought it had avoided major bloodshed between the Indian Super League and the I-League when it announced that the two leagues would run simultaneously.

Over the past three years, India had two top leagues running in the country, with the franchise-based cash-rich ISL running from October to December, while the I-League, containing the traditional clubs in the country, running from January to March.

India’s parallel football seasons will now begin on November 17, 2017 and run all the way through to March 4, 2018 – just a wee-bit shorter than five months. The ISL’s schedule is out and even though we are just a few days away from the start, the I-League still hasn’t put out it’s official schedule on it’s website.

It all seems like a step forward and perhaps it is but it hides a very big problem. The problem, namely, is the length of the season. Even with the pre-season training, the actual season for an Indian footballer barely last seven months.

Think about it: Just seven months.

In England, the opening day of the 2017-2018 season was on August 12, 2017 and it will conclude on May 13, 2018.

In Spain, the league will run from August 18, 2017 to 20 May, 2018.

In Italy, Germany and all the top leagues, it is the same story. The leagues are longer, the players play a lot more and they certainly have to train a lot more.

Former Aston Villa Manager, John Gregory, who is the head coach of Chennaiyin for the upcoming season spoke about how this season isn’t hectic by a long shot. “In England, for example, teams tend to play 46 games in 36 weeks. This ISL season, by comparison, is a bit more civilized. Certainly, more civilized than last season when we had to play 3 games in 6 days once,” said Gregory.

The civilized bit is one that no one is complaining about. It means the players will be able to get fitter and the coaches will be able to introduce new tactics even during the season. However, the bit that should worry the AIFF and every footballer in the country is the off-season.

In other leagues, players barely have a month off before they have to get back to training; get back to getting ready for the new season. In India, by comparison, players get a five-month vacation.

That is simply too long. For FC Pune City’s Kean Lewis, this ends up hurting playing standards in a big way. “Of course, we would like a longer season. Most countries have like one month off, we have five months. The difference is too much.

“Preferably, I would want it to be a 12-month season. Because the question for us as an athlete in India is that (while) we are happy it has gone for three to five months, what are we doing for the rest of the year? With the pre-season, we get around seven months with the club. But what are we doing for the other five months of the year?

Kean Lewis (right), who represented Delhi Dynamos last season, said he prefers a 12-month season | Photo courtesy: Delhi Dynamos
Kean Lewis (right), who represented Delhi Dynamos last season, said he prefers a 12-month season | Photo courtesy: Delhi Dynamos

“We have nothing to do, we can’t go to other leagues because they are either done or the transfer windows are shut. So we cannot go there and play. But for the time being, three months to five months is better. If an injury does happen, we have time to get back. If we have 9-10 month league, it is a good thing because then we stay fit for the nine months then. We can take a vacation for 3 months but even that is too much. Maybe it gives the foreign players time to go home but for the Indian players, I really don’t know.”

“Last year, we had the opportunity to play for the ISL and I-League. To those who were playing in both leagues, it was a good thing because they were busy throughout the year but what about those who weren’t? They had no choice.”

The point Lewis is making is one that seems to have been conveniently brushed aside by the AIFF. They have been thinking about the League without sparing any thought for the players.

It is indeed a big issue and one that deserves focus from the powers that be. Even when Bengaluru FC competed in the AFC Cup knockouts, they are actually going in cold without any match practice and that can never be a good thing.

If Indian players are used to playing shorter leagues will they ever be able to cope up with the physical requirements of a longer league?

On the other hand, perhaps the addition of a FA Cup-like tournament (which the Federation Cup was but it isn’t being held this year) could serve many purposes – it would make the season longer, give the players more playing time, a longer contract and ensure that team’s across various levels have a chance to playing those in the top tier.

Given the rivalry between the ISL and the I-League, it seems like a shame to wait for the Super Cup for them to clash. Such a tournament will fill the void nicely and given the long break that Indian footballer’s get, it is perhaps the need of the hour too.

There is talk that ISL will be longer next year but as with all things AIFF, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, all Indian players can do is... enjoy the vacation.

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