The fifth edition of the Indian Super League, which kick starts from September 29, has already rolled out its promotional campaign while most of the teams are busy preparing for the gruelling season with training camps abroad.
However, the I-League that predates the ISL is caught in an all too familiar limbo with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) et to announce its fixtures. The clubs, rightly, feel aggrieved as the Federation has downgraded the competition giving preference to the Reliance-Star backed ISL.
“Every time I go to a sponsor, the first question is ‘when are the fixtures coming out?’” Minerva Punjab’s owner Ranjit Bajaj tells
Clubs unaware of the schedule cannot plan the season in advance and that has created quite a few problems for them. “(Last month) we had an offer from an airline (company). If we had the fixtures, it would have worked out cheaper,” says V. C. Praveen, owner of Kozhikode-based Gokulam Kerala.
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Stripped of Indian talent
The influx of the game's brightest talents to the better-marketed ISL has also left the clubs with very little choice in the transfer market. The Kolkata derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan – still the biggest crowd puller in Indian football – has lost its sheen as the recent face-off had no Indian internationals in the fray.
“It’s quite natural. ISL pays more money so everyone goes there. Since the introduction of the ISL that has been the pattern. We don’t have the money to fight the moneybags of ISL,” East Bengal secretary Kalyan Mazumdar says.
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The riches offered by the ISL teams have left clubs like Gokulam struggling to build on last season’s positive campaign. “Recently, a player wanted to join us but didn’t want to sign a two-year contract because he might get a call from an ISL club,” says Praveen.
“They don’t understand the reality. We can plan a team only if we can sign players on long-term contracts. Signing a player for a year doesn’t make sense. The quality of the I-League teams is as good as those in the ISL. The performances in the Super Cup proved that.”
The last-eight stage of the inaugural Super Cup featured five I-League representatives with the likes of Gokulam, NEROCA and Shillong Lajong upsetting the much-fancied ISL opponents. The developmental side Indian Arrows, too, stretched Mumbai City FC in the qualifying round before going down 2-1 in extra-time.
Praveen adds, “They (ISL clubs) are even luring younger players with money and they end up on the bench or in the reserves. Some of them don’t understand that playing is much more important. We see foreigners coming from big leagues to the I-League only because they want playing time.”
Goalkeeper Arnab Das Sharma and forward Ajay Singh moved to Gokulam in the summer after failing to make a single appearance with Delhi Dynamos and FC Pune City, respectively.
English forward Antonio German, who made 23 appearances for Kerala Blasters over two spells, will be leading the line in Kozhikode this term after turning down better offers from the United Kingdom.
The reigning I-League champion Minerva is also faced with similar problems. “It’s difficult to compete with their budget and they overpay the players. We have a couple of ex-ISL foreigners with Minerva this year and I don’t pay them as much as ISL teams did. Some Indian players, who used to play in the ISL, are playing here for 1/10th of their previous salaries because they were not getting game time,” says Bajaj.
Need for promotion
Last season, ISL was afforded the luxury of 5.30 pm and 8 pm kick-offs in order to help maximise its TV viewership. I-League had to settle for 2 pm starts on most of its match days since some of the stadiums didn’t have floodlights.
Despite being faced with these disadvantages, I-League has managed to stay relevant according to Bajaj. “They didn’t expect our rating to be high last season because ISL was competing against EPL and La Liga. If people wanted to watch matches on Wednesdays in the afternoon then we were the only teams on offer.”
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After exceeding expectations last season, the teams are calling for the AIFF to help market the I-League. “I would like to see how they can publicise the I-League even further,” says Chennai City FC owner Rohit Ramesh. “There are TV spots and newspaper ads for ISL. Maybe something can be worked out for I-league matches – including social media content to drive the matches better.”
ATK’s attendance fell remarkably in the last two seasons to nearly 12,000 people per league game after recording nearly 42,000 in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. “The AIFF could help promote the I-league the same way as the ISL. The recent Kolkata Derby we had at the Salt Lake Stadium saw nearly 66,000 people! Can ISL show a single instance where they have had that kind of crowd? They are playing in empty stadiums. ATK had admitted that they can’t sell out the seats despite doling out free tickets by the thousand,” says Mazumdar.
Praveen requests the governing body to help get the I-League a suitable TV slot, which could help the teams earn sponsorship deals and boost gate revenues. “We would like a good slot on the TV as I feel we would be able to sell sponsorships for our shirts in a much better way. The 2 pm and 4 pm slots are killing us. We also lost the revenue from tickets.
“Our first match at 8 pm saw 23,000 people. Subsequent matches saw a drop of more than 50-70 per cent. 2 pm kickoffs saw hardly 2000-3000 people,” he says.
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An uncertain future
According to reports, AIFF has until the 2019-20 season to implement a one-league system with the concept of promotion and relegation. If it fails to do so, a FIFA and AFC-commissioned report propose an Asian ban on Indian clubs. Therefore, the I-League merging with the ISL is a very real possibility. The fear the I-League club owners have is that they will be consigned to a second division behind the ISL clubs.
"The suspense is killing us. I don't know if it's wise to invest. Because if tomorrow the league is degraded into a second division then the morale of the clubs will go down," says Praveen.
Rohit, however, remains optimistic over the future of Chennai City. He says, "We have been assured there will be a conclusion soon. We don’t know if there will be one league or whether there will be promotion or relegation. At the end of the day, the club is developing and the sport is growing. I am sure all football club owners are sitting on a gold mine."
"If one single league has merit then Minerva will be there. They can't keep clubs like NEROCA and Shillong Lojong out because one day they will get there on merit," says Bajaj.