October 14, 2019 will be a day to remember in Indian football. While thousands of tourists enjoyed the perfect holiday weather in Kuala Lumpur, a bunch of officials from I-League clubs were definitely feeling downcast.
They were not to be faulted. It was on that fateful day the KL-based Asian Football Confederation (AFC), along with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), elevated the cash-rich Indian Super League (ISL) to the status of India’s premier league.
The I-League (started as NFL in 1996-97), in its 23rd season of existence despite its moderate means, was unceremoniously sent packing to the second division. Lock, stock and barrel. Without saying it in as many words, though.
In the meeting at AFC headquarters, one I-League club official alleged the decision was unashamedly influenced by money, not merit. In his reply, an AIFF official had this to say.
To quote him verbatim: “We must acknowledge the fact that money is very important…. without money, there is no chance of any improvement in Indian football or find a sustainable model. Money is clearly, clearly the main ingredient for taking this...
“All this talk about sporting merit is important but even that can’t be achieved without money. How do you do youth development? Why so many clubs are failing the licensing criteria? So please don’t undermine the value of money.”
With the federation’s standpoint decisively explained, it wasn’t difficult to realise that the doomsday for the I-League had arrived. The razzle-dazzle party of ISL is here to stay. Quite firmly.
Truth to be told, things haven’t turned out to be as bad as it was initially feared.
The I-League, with the new season beginning on November 30, has received a lifeline on two counts.
First, the decision of AIFF’s marketing partners to allow a private channel to telecast I-League live. And most importantly, the encouraging words of India’s national coach Igor Stimac on the day of I-League launch. The Croatian said: “Every I-League player with an Indian passport could be a candidate for the senior team.”
A huge boost for a league just been demoted.
But then, I-League too faces a dilemma. Of late, it was riding on sympathy.
The typical “have and have nots” formula was working overtime. Now I-League and its clubs need to prove a point or two. Especially, whether they are up to the challenge of sustainability.
The brute financial strength of AIFF’s marketing partners and its intimidating style to crush all opposition to ISL has had the biggest negative impact on Indian football in the last five years. At the same time, ISL’s entry in 2014 has helped the I-League too.
Pre-2014, I-League’s existence looked increasingly in doubt. Several clubs shut down in a short span of time. They often blamed the AIFF for having no roadmap but that wasn’t the case always. Some failed to sustain themselves. Some struggled to solve the riddle of AFC licensing criteria. Some simply lost interest and decided to try their luck in other sport.
To add to it, the I-League organisation was not in best of health. That it took the AIFF more than 10 years to appoint a CEO exclusively for the I-League shows the federation’s lacklustre attitude and complete lack of vision.
There was little improvement over the years. The TV coverage was forgettable. The scheduling was often handled poorly. Some of the venues were pathetic. Teams received favours because of political considerations. True, the I-League always struggled for money, but overall, the approach was clearly amateurish.
The advent of ISL was like fresh air in the tunnel. Suddenly enough money was invested in club football. The organisation had a professional touch. Quality TV coverage made things look better than they actually were.
It did give I-League a new lease of life. Encouraged by ISL’s initial achievements, smaller investors pooled in money to raise teams in I-League. The grand success of Aizawl FC, Minerva Punjab FC, Real Kashmir FC or Chennai City is a post-2014 phenomenon.
To say I-League owes a lot to ISL for its current pan-India character won’t be an exaggeration. ISL did open a few frozen windows in Indian club football.
Ironically, the unexpected success of I-League proved to be its nemesis. Last season, it was clearly visible that despite all marketing gimmicks and truckload of inflated statistics, interest in ISL was somewhat diminishing.
The league organisers did not do any favour to the tournament by their grossly artificial publicity overdrive and dogged refusal to allow the product to grow on its own strength. Barring a couple of centres, nowhere the fans truly gel with the ISL.
Early this season, all attempts were made to scuttle the I-League’s progress. The entry of a new club was blocked. Some clubs were slapped with proposed unreasonable fines. A vocal club official was dragged to the ethics committee. The idea was loud and clear – to make them feel unwanted; to leave them crippled.
The AFC-AIFF roadmap was the decisive nail on the coffin. The one nation, one league formula will be applied five seasons later. A couple of I-League clubs will enter the ISL next season, but only after paying hefty franchise fees.
In Between, starting with the 2022-23 season, the winners of I-League will “stand a chance” of being promoted to the ISL. The rest will be left virtually empty-handed.
Naturally, a premature curtain was expected to come down on I-League and its low-budget clubs. Yet it made a comeback with bit of fanfare. Because AIFF and its marketing partners claim they always wanted the I-League to grow. Detractors feel they only made a tactical retreat. It’s strictly temporary.
Can it still grow?
I-League clubs will now have to fight their own battle. Not in air-conditioned meeting rooms or through strongly-worded media releases. But by sweating it out on the pitch. They often boast about their tradition, legacy, crowd support and the high standard that can outmatch “ISL upstarts.” Time they proved it.
I-League clubs can’t complain about poor TV production and inadequate coverage anymore. That assured, they now have to showcase footballers, who can march into national team. It is now their duty to fill the stands by dishing out competitive games; to demonstrate that the I-League is an inseparable part of Indian football.
For now, the knives have been withdrawn. Though they can reappear at any given time. That aside, the I-League clubs should not take sermons on the value of money too seriously. Football is not about money. It never was.
Football is about people like Harry Gregg. His head was hurting, he had blood in his mouth. Yet, he crawled back under an about-to-explode aircraft in Munich in 1958 to drag out several people from clutches of death. It included an infant, the infant’s mother, legendary Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby, Dennis Violet and Bobby Charlton.
People like Harry Greggs made football the beautiful game. The sport is about courage, inspiration and steely nerves. Not a vulgar display of deep pockets.
The options before I-League clubs is clear. Whether to copy big brother ISL at every step and earn the tag of “chronic complainers” or to concentrate on improving their performance and marketability. The choice is theirs. Because the 2019-20 season will be a crucial reality check for Indian football.