I-League and the problem of numbers

While we can talk all day about how the scenario could change and what wrongs need to be made right, the big question that stares us in the face is what happens to the player-club ratio that’s getting more disproportionate by the day, given the lesser number of teams in the League?

Watered-down competition? Action from an I-League match between Bengaluru FC and DSK Shivajians FC at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru recently. The League has been reduced to a nine-team affair this season — the lowest since the tournament took off.   -  G. P. Sampath Kumar

The Kerala Schools team practising at the Corporation Stadium in Kozhikode. "A good school football scene followed by a strong university set-up that then runs into state teams is something that needs to be crafted with much thought. There has to be a stage-wise system in place for a player who intends coming through the ranks. I know of so many talented footballers who have lost their way owing to a lack of opportunity and guidance," says Chhetri.   -  K. RAGESH

As I write this piece, we’re already halfway through the I-League, with only another eight games to play. And in hindsight, it feels like we’ve only just started the League where teams have begun digging their heels in. But that’s how things are given that the 2015-16 season is a nine-team affair — the lowest number since the I-League took off.

 

For someone who has spent a fair number of summers playing football in India, it pains me to see teams pull out of the League the way they have. That said, I am certain they have their own reasons and valid ones at that. Sustaining and monetising a football club in India is not an easy task. The sport has always struggled to get the recognition it deserves.

But while we can talk all day about how the scenario could change and what wrongs need to be made right, the big question that stares us in the face is what happens to the player-club ratio that’s getting more disproportionate by the day given the lesser number of teams in the League?

On the one hand, there is talk of how more talent is the need of the hour and how better infrastructure can churn out more players for the future; and on the other hand, the talent that is coming through has such fewer options to choose from in terms of clubs. One decision behind the doors of a boardroom and 30 players are left without a club. There are a few fortunate ones from the lot who get snapped up by teams, but for the rest, it is a nightmare.

From a club point of view, there is a big pool to choose from, but that surely is not the bigger picture. ‘Grassroots’ is a word that has been thrown around often these days, and there are associations and academies that are doing things in that respect the right way. However, while one end of the spectrum is belatedly, but slowly growing, the other end is dwindling. And when you think of it in the long run, the picture is one that worries us.

I’m certain the recent slide has caught more than just the attention of the federation, which is working to remedy the situation. In an ideal world, a pan-India league with anywhere between 16 and 18 teams that runs for a longer period would do more than just solve the problem. I know it’s easier said than done, but it’s something that needs to be worked towards.

While I’ve touched upon grassroots and the I-League, I think it’s really important to talk about the phases in between that are so critical. A good school football scene followed by a strong university set-up that then runs into state teams is something that needs to be crafted with much thought. There has to be a stage-wise system in place for a player who intends coming through the ranks. I know of so many talented footballers who have lost their way owing to a lack of opportunity and guidance. And this is where it’s going to take the coming together of the federation and player organisations like FIFPro to create a flawless system, whose benefits will not take too long to see, while safeguarding the interests of the players, who have waded through it all and are hanging on.

I had a couple of meetings a while back with many of my former team-mates who form an integral part of the Football Player’s Association of India (FPAI) and we have discussed a number of issues that affect players. I am very confident that we will be able to resolve a lot on that list. It is a process but realising we have a problem is the first step in correcting it.

Let’s hope the future holds better days for Indian football and that every kid coming through the ranks has much to inspire him or her to work hard, knowing that there’s a reward at the end of it all.