The one that is unofficial, enjoys the best patronage from the officials. This is the story of two soccer leagues in India. Official, but neglected I-League. Unofficial, but privileged Indian Super League (ISL).
The bias of the powers that be is blatant. The attempt to gradually fade out the “real” but unprivileged I-League is systematic. Extremely cautious. But glaring. The question rises time and again – are the powers that be in Indian soccer “administering slow poison theory” to eliminate I-League. The All India Football Federation president Praful Patel has no qualms in accepting which is the preferred league as he opines “Soccer is not about sentiments, it is a game of serious investments”.
There have been consistent attempts to decimate I-League into oblivion in the interest of ISL.
I LEAGUE-ISL MERGER
The first such attempt was to merge both the league. Where the financial model itself spell a certain death for the low budget I-League clubs. For the current I-League champions Aizawl FC, who survive and thrive on a meager annual budget of Rs 2.5 crore, it is beyond imagination to accumulate up to Rs 15 crore ISL franchise fee. That couldn’t happen though.
The AIFF President, in spite of his determination, has been made to change his stance on “doing away” with the I-League. The timeline from May 2016 to 2017 suggests that how the AIFF boss is forced to defer his plans. From a certain announcement of I League-ISL merger to the statement of no merger for 2-3 years.
There is a certain chronology and strong reasons behind change of these statements. Emergence of Aizawl FC and strong sentimental support to Aizawl, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will create a furor, which AIFF might find tough to handle. The attempts to eliminate I-League, at least in stature are consistent.
ASIAN CHAMPIONS LEAGUE BERTH FOR ISL
AIFF had mooted a proposal for a third spot for India in the AFC tournaments. This could ensure a berth for ISL champions alongside ISL in the AFC tournaments. From where the top side could qualify for Asian Champions League playoffs. Thus, denying the I-League winner its legitimate right, and pushing it into another qualifier.
“They (the AIFF) are not the BCCI and football is not cricket in India, they can’t dictate things like this. They have to follow the norms of AFC and FIFA, and frankly, they are not handling the current scenario as expected,” says veteran soccer analyst and commentator Novy Kapadia. “AIFF had to back down (from their plans of merger), as they hadn’t expected a club like Aizawl FC to win. This has created a problem for them.”
ISL EXPANSION ‘SLOW DEATH’ FOR I-LEAGUE
When merger is not possible. When the AIFF failed to make its point in the AFC, there is this next attempt. A safer route where the power of money will decapitate, if not eliminate, the I-League in a systematic manner. AIFF has announced the expansion of ISL by addition of three teams. The ISL clubs, which appear non grata in razzmatazz of ISL, don’t stand monetary muscle to win the battle in hand.
DRY POOL OF TALENT FOR I-LEAGUE
Three more clubs for ISL will mean more room for talent in the ‘AIFF-favoured’ league. This will virtually dry the pool of talent for I-League. The clubs with big fat purse will lure away the best talent I-League clubs have been relying on. Availability of the quality player will be a never ending struggle for I-League. Each sport is about its stars. Sans star, a team or a tournament is bound to lose its fan base.
LONG ISL DURATION
Poor marketing, sub-standard broadcast quality, lesser spectator facilities and lack of pan-India budge have been the bane of I-League. This agony will increase further as ISL is set to draw more attention with longer presence on the soccer leagues’ horizon in India.
LESSER CORPORATE SUPPORT
Emergence of three more teams in the much-hyped ISL will give corporate ‘better options’ to exploit their marketing strategies. The better the visibility, the better the value for monies spent on market. The I-League clubs, managing with basic minimum budgets, may gradually struggle to find sufficient funds for their survival.
WHY IS ISL PRIVILEGED?
Still, it is one of the top commercial football tournament in India. During the ISL player auction in 2015, over Rs 25 crore are spent on player acquisitions by each team, which is more than the total operational costs of the 11-team, 5-month I-League.
AIFF is under pressure to protect these commercial values. The recent bid to invite tenders for accommodating up to three more teams in ISL is an initiative in that direction. How it will hit I-League is defined in paragraphs above.
The AIFF president has recently mentioned ISL as a catalyst in the changing scenario of football in India. Improvement in infrastructure, grassroots development, sprouting of academies, improvement in Fifa ranking, new teams, new cities promoting football. Patel attributes all this to ISL. There are commercial compulsion involved. ISL is run by IMG-Reliance.
According to estimates, IMG Reliance is incurring over Rs 100 crore losses, in addition to that each team takes more than Rs 35 crore deficit for each season of ISL. The League is a commercial venture. Losses are well-calculated investments, aimed at long-term gains. AIFF, the lone ISL entity to be benefited so far, will be compelled to ensure the success of the ISL commercial model.
How does that commercial success come? When ISL becomes ‘the soccer league’ from India on the AIFF and AFC forums. For that to happen, ISL vs I-League battle will have to be decided conclusively in favour of the formerly.
There was a purpose when under compulsion the AIFF President announced “no merger for next 2-3 years”. There is a certain goal behind adding three more teams to the ISL.
“It is a probable attempt from the AIFF size to gradually eliminate I-League,” says Novy Kapadia. “They are trying to veil it. But it is quite evident in what direction are they heading and for what purpose.”
It was legacy vs money for AIFF. And as it seems, with the winning of Aizawl FC this year, it is legacy that prevailed over the money. For the time being. The plans of merger were scrapped.
However, veteran soccer administrator Shaji Prabhakaran, former FIFA regional development officer for South and Central Asia, seem to be optimistic about the developments. “Indian football is going through transition period and it is a welcome opportunity for new players to come up and find their value. Unless any confirmation comes, all is speculations. And I believe that AIFF will do its best and in favour of the game,” says Shaji. “If 20% of the total ISL spent can be allocated for I-league, then it will change the face of game. I-League lacks proper branding, marketing strategy and most importantly broadcasting quality. If all this can be improved, then sponsors will also find value (in the I-League),” Shaji added.
However, Shaji and Novy believe that the latest AIFF move is definitely going to be ISL’s gain, I League’s loss. “The 3 teams that are to move from I-league to ISL are the most consistent teams in the primary competition and this is certainly going to affect the level of game. Maybe Aizawl FC has done better this year, but as it seems, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are the teams that have made the competition lucrative. No, after the movement ISL will have 3 teams from Kolkata that will bring a Derby culture for ISL, making it more lucrative,” said Novy Kapadia.
Shaji agrees. “Obviously competition level will be affected, but then if we see at the recent events with Aizawl FC winning the title and then smaller teams also doing well in I-League 2nd division, I feel the momentum can be maintained and such things can inspire more teams. This way competition level will not be impacted and efforts should be made to make it competitive enough.”
AIFF seems to be succeeding in its plans. But soccer in India is as much about legacy, as it might be about commercial numbers for AIFF. Can the fact be erased from the history of India soccer or Indian sports that in 1940s, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan had played an exhibition match to fund the Olympic journey of the Indian hockey team, which returned with the gold then.