For the I-League, it’s the case of unlucky 13. After 12 years as India’s premier football competition, it has been unceremoniously relegated to the second-tier of Indian football, to accommodate All India Football Federation’s contractual obligations with its commercial partners IMG-Reliance that seek the elevation of their own competition, the Indian Super League, to Indian football’s top tier.

After launching in 2014, the ISL, a franchise-based competition, slowly encroached upon the I-League’s space and managed to brush it aside with its superior marketing strategies, organisation and an ability to attract and retain the best talent in Indian football.

So, as the I-League begins on Saturday, having fallen from grace, and battling its current predicament, here is a look at how Indian football’s top-tier has evolved over the years.

National Football League – New dawn (1996-1999)

India did not have a domestic club-based league till 1996 although club football flourished through various national-level competitions like the Federation Cup, Durand Cup, IFA Shield and Rovers Cup.

The Santosh Trophy, an inter-state football championship was the biggest competition before the AIFF launched the National Football League, a semi-professional competition in 1996.

The first edition saw 12 teams participate across two zones: west and east. The competition was held at a neutral venue with preliminary stages taking place in Kolkata and Goa and the final stage involving the top four teams from each zone happening in Goa. A double round-robin format was used in the final stage as JCT Mills pipped Churchill Brothers to the inaugural title.

The second season saw a change in format with ten teams playing in a double round-robin format in New Delhi without a preliminary stage. FC Kochin, a team formed by a group of NRIs entered the fold as Mohun Bagan were crowned champions

In the 1998-99 season, the conference format was brought back as the NFL returned to having 12 teams. This time, top three from each zone made it to the final stage as Salgaocar emerged as winners.

The prize money for the NFL winners was Rs 35 lakh.

National Football League – Home-away format and Bengal dominance (1999-2004)

From the 1999-00 season, the NFL adopted a format that resembled league football across the globe. 12 teams participated in one single pool and faced each other in a home-away format. Relegation was introduced and two teams from the second division, established in 1997 were promoted. Mohun Bagan won that edition to kickstart an era of Bengal dominance.

The same format was followed in the next four campaigns as East Bengal and Mohun Bagan exchanged hands on the trophy. In 2004, East Bengal became the first club to successfully defend the NFL title as India warmed up to a more European style league format.

However, financial irregularities plagued AIFF’s venture as FC Kochin folded up in 2002 after incurring losses amounting to Rs 2.5 crore per season.

National Football League – The rise of the west (2004-2007)

Mohun Bagan’s hold on the NFL weakened after their third title. They finished in the bottom half as they saw their arch-rivals East Bengal lift consecutive championships. One of the major reasons for Mohun Bagan’s slide down the league table was the growing influence of the Goan sides.

Eventually in 2005, Dempo broke Bengal’s dominance in the NFL to claim their first national crown. It was to trigger another era of dominance in Indian football’s top tier as clubs from the western part of India, especially from Goa were to rule the roost for years to come.

Mumbai’s Mahindra United won the title in 2006 before Dempo reclaimed it in 2007.

However, in 2006, the league was reduced to ten teams from twelve. The same format was followed in the 2007 season which was to be the last of the NFL.

Sponsors and Prize Money (NFL)

Season Title Sponsor Prize Money
1996-98 Phillips Rs 35 lakh (for champions)
1998-00 Coca Cola Rs 35 lakh (for champions)
2000-01 No Sponsor Rs 35 lakh (for champions)
2001-02 Tata Rs 35 lakh (for champions)
2002-03 ONGC Rs 35 lakh (for champions)
2003-04 Coca Cola Rs 35 lakh (for champions)
2004-07 ONGC Rs 40 lakh (for champions)

I-League – Going bigger and professional (2007-2010)

In 2007, after failing to usher in professionalism in Indian football, the AIFF rebranded the NFL and introduced the I-League. The number of teams and the format remained the same for the first season, but foreign player quota was restricted to four players: three-non-Asians and one Asian.

The AIFF roped in Zee Sports as the broadcaster for the league as Oil and Natural Gas Corporation continued to be the sponsor of the league.

The AIFF increased the teams from 10 to 12 in the next campaign as they allowed four teams from the second division to be promoted into the I-League. Mumbai FC and Chirag United entered the fray as Churchill Brothers won the title.

The league received criticism for not having a pan-India presence as eleven of the twelve teams hailed from three cities in 2008.

In 2009, two more teams were added to the league to make it a 14-team affair that spread to seven cities. Shillong Lajong, Pune FC and Viva Kerala were the beneficiaries of the move. Dempo regained their title as Goan clubs continued their dominance.

I-League – Enter IMG-Reliance and beginning of conflict (2010-2013)

Dempo celebrating their 2011-12 title triumph. AIFF Media

In December 2010, AIFF signed a 15-year deal with IMG-Reliance that made them their commercial partners, handing them exclusive rights to sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, video, franchising, and the right to create a new football league. The AIFF also ended its 10-year deal with AIFF five years earlier before the deal with Reliance.

After the 2010 season, Mahindra United disbanded due to growing costs and lack of financial rewards. A year later, the inaugural champions of NFL, JCT Mills followed suit.

The remaining 12 clubs refused to sign the AFC Licensing papers which was a criteria to play in the league according to AFC norms. The clubs complained of a lack of efforts on part of IMG-Reliance to promote the I-League.

The AIFF added their developmental side Indian Arrows into the mix for the 2010-11 season as the league continued with 14 teams. The title stayed in Goa as Salgaocar, Dempo and Churchill Brothers won the title in the next three seasons.

I-League – The corporate experiment (2013-2016)

Bengaluru FC celebrate their I-League title triumph in 2016. IANS

With Air India and United Sikkim relegated, ONGC were not allowed to play in the I-League for failing to fulfill club licensing criteria. Rangdajeid United and Mohammedan Sporting were promoted into the I-League and Bengaluru FC, owned by JSW Sport was allowed in the I-League as an expansion team. This was the start of AIFF’s corporate experiment where they invited big business entities to bid for a team in the I-League that would be given exemption from relegation for three years.

Bengaluru FC, the first of the corporate entries took the I-League by storm winning the competition in its debut season. This prompted AIFF to extend this experiment in the following seasons.

Ahead of the 2015 campaign, AIFF invited bids for more corporate entries. It also tightened its stance on AFC club-licensing criteria by axing Churchill Brothers, United SC and Rangdajied United for failing to pass the criteria.

Bharat FC, owned by the Kalyani group was added to the mix as the number of teams fell to 11. Mohun Bagan became national champions after 12 years in 2015 after a dramatic final game against Bengaluru FC.

However, the Bharat FC experiment failed as the club shut up shop after just one year. The bigger blow came when Pune FC, one of the most well-run clubs in Indian football at the time, decided to close their first-team operations as they incurred heavy losses without securing any great returns. Royal Wahingdoh who enjoyed a dream debut in 2015 also withdrew due to financial uncertainties.

To make up for the lost teams, another corporate entrant, DSK Shivajians joined the nine-team 2015-16 season which was won by Bengaluru FC.

Meanwhile, the ISL had kicked off in 2014, causing a stir by bringing in some of the biggest names in world football in the shape of Allesandro Del Piero, Nicholas Anelka and Roberto Carlos. The I-League clubs began to feel the heat of the sudden shift in Indian football as ISL grew in prominence.

I-League – Talent drain, unpredictability and high drama (2016-2019)

In the summer of 2016, AIFF proposed a three-tier roadmap for Indian football that would put the ISL as the top flight in the country. Three I-League clubs – reported to be Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC – were to join the new twelve-team top division, relegating the rest of the I-League teams to the second tier.

Three Goan clubs, Dempo, Salgaocar and Sporting Clube de Goa withdrew from the I-League in protest, further reducing the number of teams in the I-League. Thus, Aizawl FC, who were relegated the earlier season, were restored and Minerva Punjab who had lost the second division final to Dempo were promoted instead.

To restore Goan presence in the I-League, AIFF reinstated Churchill Brothers in the competition and also gave direct entry to Chennai City FC to make it a ten-team affair.

Aizawl FC stunned Indian football to become the first team from the North East to win the I-League in fairy tale fashion. The big guns Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC fell by the wayside as Khalid Jamil guided his troops to an unprecedented triumph. It was the beginning of an era of unpredictability in the I-League. However, Mumbai FC, who were relegated that season, decided to close down operation to leave no teams from the city in India’s top tier.

Aizawl’s triumph breathed new life into the competition. The AIFF didn’t completely implement its proposed roadmap, keeping the I-League as the country’s top tier. However, at the end of the 2017 season, Bengaluru FC entered the ISL through a bidding process. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal who were expected to follow suit, refused to pay their way into the IMG-Reliance owned competition and decided to stay put in the I-League.

In 2018, AIFF invited bids to enter into the I-League again as Gokulam Kerala, a club from Kozhikode entered the fray. The apex football body also revived the Indian Arrows project it had shelved in 2013.

However, from 2017-18 season onwards, the I-League and the ISL were to run simultaneously and thus they could no longer share the best talents in the country unlike the past three seasons when the I-League followed the ISL season and almost the same set of players played in both leagues.

The I-League lost its best talents to the richer ISL clubs and had to do with the second-grade talent of Indian football and some young players. However, it was to bring a different kind of romance to the I-League.

Minerva Punjab won the title in 2018 after a dramatic three-way title tussle as plenty of young talent caught the eye of the Indian football faithful that season. At the same time, the ISL was suffering a dip in popularity after the initial spike.

In 2019, which was to be I-League’s final season as the top tier of Indian football, Chennai City FC scripted another fairy tale triumph to preserve fans’ interest in the competition.

I-League sponsors and Prize Money

Season Title Sponsor Prize Money
2007-11 ONGC Rs 70 lakh (for champions)
2011-13 No sponsor Rs 70 lakh (for champions)
2013-14 Airtel Rs 70 lakh (for champions)
2014-15 Hero MotoCorp Rs 70 lakh (for champions)
2015-Present Hero MotoCorp Rs 1 crore (for champions)

ISL (2019-Present) – No relegation or promotion

The ISL is now the top-tier of Indian football. ISL

On October 14, 2019, it was announced that ISL would be granted the AFC Champions League preliminary round spot that initially rested with the I-League, giving it the status of India’s top-tier competition.

The ISL has retained its league plus knockout format thus becoming the first-ever Indian top flight to have semi-finals and a final with the top four out of the ten sides qualifying for the last-four stage.

For the first time since 1999, though, India’s top division will have no relegation and promotion as IMG-Reliance have a no relegation clause with its franchises for ten years. Next season, the ISL is expected to invite bids for two more teams to enter before opening up for the I-League teams by the 2025 season through a promotion-relegation system.

Season Title Sponsor Prize Money
2014-Present Hero MotoCorp Rs 8 crore (for champions)

After a long time, India have a clear roadmap for the coming years and one may be excused to expect stability after turbulent recent times.

But, as history suggests uncertainty is always around the corner in Indian football. The lack of a sustainable revenue model continues to plague both the I-League and the ISL teams. FC Pune City became the first ISL club to shut down in 2019 and Delhi Dynamos had to relocate to Odisha to survive.

Indian football’s top-tier will complete 25 years in 2021 and the ride has rarely ever been smooth. Even as a settled league system is on the horizon, a few more bumps, as has become the norm, can only be expected.