If anyone wants to understand how the phrase ‘step-motherly treatment’ really works, then there can be no better case study than the manner in which the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has been treating the I-League and it’s younger, brasher brother the Indian Super League (ISL).

The AIFF honchos don’t miss a chance to emphasise how the I-League is the premier national league in the country simply because it gets the AFC Champions League spot for the next year. But the way things have transpired ever since it was decided that both I-League and ISL would run simultaneously would make one believe that the first born was actually the step child.

The AIFF launched the 11th edition of the I-League on Monday in New Delhi with the whole gamut of coaches and captains in attendance and federation’s general secretary Kushal Das patting their own back for getting Star Sports on board at the official broadcaster.

Nobody will deny that Star Sports is one of the premier sports broadcaster in the country and would bring better production value and enhance the whole experience for the fans just like the ISL. But the equality ends there itself.

A lot has already been written about how a majority of ISL matches will be played at prime time while the I-League clubs have been given 2 pm and 5.30 pm slots to play their games. Worse is that 36 of the 90 games I-League will be played at 2 pm while no ISL game will played at the same time.

This despite the AIFF wanting all clubs to have floodlights at their stadiums and forcing new entrant Gokulam FC to shift base from Mallapuram to Kozikode, because they don’t have floodlights at their home stadium.

“We have a big fan base in Mallapuram. They told us to shift and then we get to know that most of our matches have been scheduled for 2pm. Will the fans come at that time?” Gokulam coach Bino George was quoted as saying by Tribune after the schedule was announced.

When Das was asked about it, his explanation was, “You have to understand that for the first time, I-League is coming on Star TV. It’s a huge achievement. I remember when I had joined the AIFF in 2010, for two years we didn’t have a national broadcaster (for the I-League). It was shown on regional channels. To come from there to the Star platform, it’s a huge achievement. The kickoff times are a little different. Star is a huge platform, Star has a huge number of properties, it was a huge challenge to get them together,” he was quoted as saying in Hindustan Times.

Moreover, there was virtually no promotion campaign for the League by the AIFF or the broadcaster till some of the clubs began to raise a hue and cry. A promo was finally released on Wednesday evening with just over 72 hours left for the league to kick off.

Players for Indian Arrows squad

While AIFF officials will probably blame that on the broadcaster to save their skins, it would be interesting to hear their defence on the way they have handled the issue of finding players for the Indian Arrows squad.

The Arrows will be playing in the I-League as part of AIFF’s strategy to keep the u-17 squad players together for bigger challenges as it hopes to win the bid for the U-20 World Cup and coach Luis Norton De Matos wanted to add a few u-19 players to the squad in an effort to build a compact unit.

While the AIFF asked Minerva FC to release two players following a Players Status Committee meeting without offering any compensation to the club, the ISL clubs have refused to release the players.

Even De Matos expressed his exasperation over the issue. “I had prepared a list of U-19 players but at least five of them are with ISL teams. I have no option. I want to prepare players for U-19 tournaments in the coming two years,” he was quoted as saying by Hindustan Times.

“The question is whether they will get game time or not in ISL. Playing 18 matches in I-League is better than playing two matches in ISL. At a young age, the more you play, the more you will develop. In I-League, there is chance to rub shoulders with senior players,” Matos said.

ISL clubs have long term contracts with most of these young players and there is no reason why they should release them at the whims and fancy of the AIFF. But the same rule should be applied for the I-League clubs even though they give just a year-long contract. And if it has to be done in the name of national interest, the policy should be uniform across the two leagues.

This is not the first time that ISL clubs have got this preferential treatment. Even Stephen Constantine had complained about the clout of ISL in his book as the national team players were not released early for the camp in 2015 with the league citing FIFA rules for mandatory release of players only four days before the match.

While the ISL clubs were allowed to release players according to the book, I League clubs have been forced to release their players to the national camps for far longer durations.

It is nobody’s argument that the I-League or the clubs who play in the I-League should get preferential treatment ahead of ISL simply because of its first-born status. It is also widely accepted that there are many problems related to the clubs playing in the I-League, making it very difficult to plan things in advance.

One of the reasons why the I League schedule was delayed was because some clubs had not put together their squads in time.

But what is difficult to understand is why the AIFF has to always bend backwards to accommodate ISL while those sitting in the Football House in Dwarka, New Delhi, allow the politics within the federation and the power of legacy clubs Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to pull the product down.