In his second coming as Indian football team coach, Constantine has taken it upon himself to show a mirror to the state of Indian football. In various interviews and conversations, he has not been afraid to expound on length on the various problems that ail Indian football. Only on September 3, Constantine came down heavily on what he perceived as the interference of television broadcasters on the All India Football Federation, the governing body of football in India. But that’s not the end of it. In a free-wheeling, detailed interview with Firstpost, he predicted an apocalyptic future for Indian football: “Indian football is already at death’s door.”
In a way, though, it is heartening that Constantine is willing to take up the cudgels for Indian football, in a day and age when the AIFF remains satisfied that they’ve saved Indian football with the introduction of the Indian Super League. To give credit where credit is due, the first season of the Indian Super League performed well above expectations and the second season should see more of the same. But as Peter Cunha argued in his excellent piece, the Indian Super League may probably be the death knell of India’s primary league, the I-League.
The ISL, for all the hype and bluster, is nothing more than a glorified exhibition tournament taking place for only three months with foreign players paid exorbitant sums to participate. But the I-League is the real deal, a proper league comprising some of India’s oldest football clubs with the winners getting a chance to participate at the Asian equivalent of the UEFA Champions League.
The very existence of two separate leagues makes India a unique case in world football. There is no other country in the world with two separate football leagues, a point that Constantine and other football fans have harped on repeatedly. Nor are these arguments new. They came up even during the formation of the ISL, but the AIFF paid a deaf ear, more interesting in convincing IMG-Reliance to start the ISL. It is only now when things have become critical – clubs in the I-League are seriously contemplating shutting stop – that there is a belated effort to recognise that having two separate leagues is an exercise in foolhardiness.
But that predictably would lead to a separate can of worms. How exactly would an East Bengal or a Mohun Bagan, clubs which are part of historical folklore in Kolkata and institutions in themselves, co-exist with an Atletico De Kolkata, for example? Would IMG-Reliance and owners of the different franchises in the ISL be willing to invest in a league which would obviously last longer than just two months? Would these icon players, most of who are past their prime, be open to playing for periods longer than three months and even if they were, would any of the franchises be able to afford them anymore?
Broadcasters hold sway
But even going beyond the ISL debate, there is much merit in Constantine’s original point. When Constantine complains that India’s footballing calendar is at the mercy of television broadcasters, one cannot help but nod in agreement. All over the world, leagues follow a fixed schedule with the exception of India, ostensibly at the behest of television broadcasters. Obviously, following a completely different schedule from the rest of the world disrupts India’s preparations – they are unable to arrange friendly fixtures with other teams and hence get insufficient match practice.
The lack of match practice is probably a big factor in the run of bad results lately. While this Indian team is not short of genuine talent with the likes of Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Eugneson Lyngdoh, they have often looked rusty during critical moments in crucial matches and the lack of match practice is showing.
It’s not all bleak though. The 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup, scheduled to be held in India, represents a great opportunity for the AIFF to get its house in order. While silencing Constantine might be the easier option, it might be worthwhile for AIFF to lend an ear to what he is suggesting. Or Constantine’s apocalyptic prediction might arrive sooner rather than later.
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