The Impact of the I-League and its Future

The 10th Hero I-League that kicks off on January 7, 2017 may well be the last edition if the AIFF goes ahead with its proposed merger of the Indian Super League (ISL) franchise clubs and the I-League.

K. MURALI KUMAR

Defending champion Bengaluru Football Club (BFC) had a wonderful season, also finishing runner-up in the AFC Cup in Doha.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

The launch of the Indian Professional League (I-League) on November 24, 2007 was intended to give Indian football a much-needed boost. In the last week of February 2008, the second division of the I-League, commenced. However, the aspirations were not fulfilled. Within a decade, the I-League has lost glamour mainly because it gets step-motherly treatment in terms of marketing and promotion from the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and its marketing partners, IMG-Reliance. The 10th Hero I-League that kicks off on January 7, 2017 may well be the last edition if the AIFF goes ahead with its proposed merger of the Indian Super League (ISL) franchise clubs and the I-League.

I vividly experienced the absence of proper marketing of the I-League during my several stints as a commentator to various cities. In January 2015, when we went to Goa for commentary, it was noticeable that there were only banners and posters featuring the ISL even when it had got over in December 2014. Except for the print media there was no promotion of the I-League. The 36th Hero Federation Cup held in two venues in Goa in December 2014 and January 2015 received negligible promotion. Even uplinking facilities for telecast of matches were not completed. The first three matches in which I did commentary at the Tilak Maidaan Vasco and the Nehru Stadium, Margao were not shown live on Ten Sports as there were no uplinking facilities.

That this happened in Goa was really shocking. For me, the success story of the I-League is the rise of the Goa clubs. The first six editions of the I-League were won by Dempo (2008, 2010 and 2012), Churchill Brothers (2009 and 2013) and Salgaocar (2011). During this period of domination, the famous Kolkata clubs got eclipsed. Only Mohun Bagan, coached by Karim Bencharifa, in 2008-09, and East Bengal, coached by Trevor Morgan, in 2010-11, were in contention for the title. Both finished runners-up. Otherwise, there would be three Goan clubs in the top four as in 2010-11 (4th I-League) and 2008-09 (2nd I-League). In 2004-05, there were six teams from Goa, Dempo (ultimate champions), Salgaocar, Churchill Brothers, Sporting Clube de Goa, Vasco and Fransa FC. As Armando Colaco, the most successful coach in the NFL/I-League with five titles for Dempo once said, “The Goa clubs provided contracts, financial help to so many young Goan players, whose careers got stabilised and this helped to popularise the game in the State.”

Yet, in the 10th I-League there will be only one team from Goa, namely Churchill Brothers that got cleared to participate because of a court order. For two seasons Churchill Brothers was not allowed to play in the I-League as it could not fulfill the club licensing criteria. Now either due to the court order or seemingly political compulsions (Churchill Alemao has joined NCP, the political party of Mr. Praful Patel, the AIFF president, ahead of the Goa State elections), it is back. However, Churchill Brothers is struggling to form a competitive team in the little time given to it. The star players from Goa have departed to other clubs. Romeo Fernandez, Rowlin Borges and Jackiechand Singh have joined East Bengal and Mandar Rao Desai and Lenny Rodriguez are with Bengaluru FC. If there is just one club from Goa, playing at the highest level, it will have disastrous consequences for the future of football in the State.

 

When JCT was in existence I often went to Ludhiana for commentary of its home matches. From the Railway station to the Guru Nanak stadium, there would be no posters or promotion of the event. Ludhiana is primarily a commercial town, with a vast hosiery market and the people were either unaware or disinterested in football. Nobody there ever recognised greats like I. M. Vijayan or Jo Paul Ancheri during their two stints with JCT in the late 1990s and early 21st century.

There are two new franchise teams, Chennai City FC and Minerva FC (Punjab) in the 10-team 10th I-League. The choice of these two teams is strange. Kerala Blasters was the success story of the ISL (average crowds of 55,000), yet, there is no team from God’s own country. Minerva FC is trying to revive football in Punjab but its choice of Ludhiana for its home matches is disastrous.

It has even promised to get famous newly-wed cricketers Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and their glamorous spouses to attend games and a bhangra party to enliven proceedings but such gimmicks may not boost attendance. Chennai City FC is an unknown entity and it is to be seen how it performs.

It would have been much better to have included Neroca FC from Manipur. Imphal has an airport and is easily accessible. Crowd support in Imphal would have been massive. At present there will be two North-East derby matches in the I-League — Shillong Lajong vs Aizawl FC (home and away). If Neroca had been included there would have been six North-East derby matches, which would have greatly boosted the average attendance figures and TV ratings of the 10th I-League. When Neroca FC played Aizawl FC in a quarterfinal league match in the recent Durand tournament in Delhi in September 2016, the stadium was almost packed, an apt indication of the vast fan following these two teams have. For the last three years the AIFF has been flirting with the idea of franchise teams in the I-League. These franchise teams get special privileges, like not being relegated even if they finish last for their supposed promotion of football. It clicked with Bengaluru FC in 2013-14. Debutant Bengaluru FC won the 7th AirTel I-League that season and was again champion in 2016 and it has developed a good fan following. However the other two franchise teams have flopped. Bharat FC (Pune) came last in the 8th I-League in 2015 and did not even field a team in the next edition. Similarly DSK Shivajians came last in the 2016 I-League but survived. Creditably DSK Shivajians has built good infrastructure and has a flourishing youth academy in collaboration with Liverpool. Crowd puller Aizawl FC finished second last in 2016 but got relegated. Luckily the popular Mizoram team got a new lease of life and will play in the 10th I-League as the three Goa clubs withdrew.

The AIFF should have offered franchise participation to public sector units also. After all ONGC, for many years, sponsored the NFL and I-League and even fielded competitive teams.

Read: > Depleted Bengaluru embarks on title defence

It should also be allowed to participate as a franchise team. If Iraq Air Force (winner of the 2016 AFC Cup, beating Bengaluru FC 1-0 in the final) can clear the club licensing programmes and participate, then units in India like ONGC, Air India and BSF that have such a rich tradition of development of football in India and provided so much employment could also be given a chance to fulfill criteria and play. Why are they being denied? Is the reason ideological or is there more than meets the eye?

So, the franchise experiment has not always been a success. The casualties amongst I-League clubs have been huge. So many famous clubs that had rendered yeoman service to football and had been successful, like JCT (NFL champion in 1997), Mahindra United (NFL champion in 2005), Pune FC (noted for its long term development programmes), Royal Wahingdoh and Rangdajied United (Shillong) and now the three Goa clubs, Dempo, Salgaocar and Sporting Clube de Goa, have withdrawn. All these clubs had a rich history and tradition and it would have been better if the AIFF had patiently heard their grievances and tried persuading them to persist.

 

The 10th I-League will follow the pattern of the last three editions. The contest for the title will be between Bengaluru FC, Mohun Bagan (retained almost the same squad as in the last edition) and a revamped East Bengal with Trevor Morgan at the helm. This trio has the financial clout and has recruited the best Indian players and good foreign recruits.

The other teams, Mumbai FC, Shillong Lajong, Aizawl FC, DSK Shivajians, Churchill Brothers, Chennai City FC and Minerva FC will be contesting for middle of the table positions and to avoid relegation.

Overall, 37 clubs have played in the 20-year existence of the NFL and I-League from 11 States. The AIFF’s developmental team (Indian Arrows/Pailan Arrows can be considered as a “non-State” participant). However, clubs that regularly participated in the NFL/I-League were only from Goa, Bengal and Maharashtra. They constitute about 70 per cent of the participating clubs. Prior to the start of the 10th I-League, Goa, Maharashtra and Kerala lead the table with six teams each. However the major success story of the NFL/I-League has been Goa. The six teams from Goa contributed to a total of 72 appearances; while the six teams from Kerala contributed to only 12 appearances. This indicates that the teams from Goa regularly participated and achieved success. In contrast, teams from Kerala, like FC Kochin, Viva Kerala, Chirag United and State Bank of Travancore (SBT) were inconsistent and have not won any NFL/I-League title and have only played a few seasons.

The highest number of teams in a single year in the I-League was 14 (2009-10 to 2012-13). This maximum number existed for four years only. In the 2015-16 season it declined to only nine teams, the lowest ever. Immediately prior to the advent of the ISL, the I-League had 13-14 teams. Since ISL started in 2014, the I-League shrunk to 11 teams in 2014-15; nine teams in 2015-16 and now 10 teams in 2017. A curtailed season with limited exposure is hampering all teams. Unfortunately several players are getting lesser on-field playing time. Some, like international midfielder Jewel Raja Sheikh, who scored the winning penalty in the recent ISL final, do not even have a contract with any I-League club.

> Read: East Bengal renews title hunt with a new side

The eight most dominant teams in terms of victories and appearances in the last 20 years history of the NFL/I-League have been East Bengal(631 goals in 428 matches), Mohun Bagan, Churchill Brothers, Dempo, Salgaocar, JCT, Mahindra United and Sporting Club De Goa (the last five have all quit). It is important to note the decimation. Except for the two Kolkata clubs and re-instated Churchill Brothers, every other successful team has quit the I-League.

Overall the I-League did not really herald the arrival of professionalism in Indian football and achieved very few of its objectives. The title of the new look I-League in 2007-08 had been derived from Japan’s successful J-league, which started in 1993. The requirements for the I-League were immense. It was mandatory for clubs to have age-group teams, contract system for players, qualified coaches (which gradually meant an A license degree from the Asian Football Confederation), their own stadiums on lease if not owned and to be a legal entity. Only some of these objectives were fulfilled.

Yes, many Indian coaches obtained not only A license but also the Professional License degrees from the AFC. A new generation of coaches emerged, like Santosh Kashyap (coach of Mumbai FC, earlier with ONGC, Rangdajied United, Royal Wahingdoh and Salgaocar), Khalid Jamil (now coach of Aizawl FC and earlier with Mumbai FC), Thongboi Singto (with Shillong Lajong for many years) and Sanjoy Sen (led Mohun Bagan to victory in the 8th Hero I-League in 2015 and the 37th Hero Federation Cup in May 2016). The older generation of coaches, Subash Bhowmick, Subrata Bhattacharya, Sukhwinder Singh and Bimal Ghosh gradually faded away as they did not have the necessary license or re-invented themselves as Technical Directors as Bhowmick did in the 6th I-League when he guided Churchill Brothers to victory in the 2012-13 season.

Most of the clubs only paid lip service to the idea of age-group teams. Only Shillong Lajong, the now defunct Pune FC, Dempo and Salgaocar (both clubs have also withdrawn from the 10th I-League) invested seriously in age-group teams. For most of the other clubs, including the glamorous East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, it is just a perfunctory service.

No Indian club has a stadium on lease or has built its own. None of the 10 clubs in the 10th Hero I-League own the stadiums where they will play their home matches. The Kolkata clubs, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have their own grounds and clubhouses in tents but the stands are only temporary wooden ones as the grounds are leased from the Army, which has refused permission for a permanent structure to be built there. Consequently their home matches were invariably held in the Salt Lake Stadium. In 2017, Bagan and East Bengal will play their home matches in Barasat and Siliguri, as the Salt Lake Stadium is being renovated for the 2017 U-17 World Cup. In 2007 Dempo (Goa) and JCT had promised to develop their own stadiums. Dempo had planned to invest in a 30,000-seater in Panjim, whilst JCT was considering an exclusive football stadium in Hoshiarpur. Neither of these plans materialised. In fact, JCT shut shop in 2011, a major blow to development of football talent in Punjab and Dempo has now withdrawn its team from the I-League. What was the difference between the I-League and the National Football League (NFL), which existed for 11 seasons (started in 1996-97) but was stopped in 2007? The much proclaimed I -League was ultimately just old wine in a new bottle? However the one change that took place in the I-League is that clubs staging their home matches could keep 90 per cent of their revenue after expenses were deducted. This was meant to be an incentive for the clubs to improve their marketing divisions and create packages to sell their home matches to the local community. Again the idea was laudable but the clubs are not yet geared up for professional marketing.

> Read: Sunil Chhetri's column on I-League

A change in the contract system for players was one of the conditions put forth by the AIFF, for clubs participating in the I-League. A more formalised contract system for players in the I-League was meant to have replaced the existing annual contract system in which clubs make no money whatsoever from the sale and purchase of a player. Players are not bound by long term contracts as in professional leagues abroad, making it difficult to establish the foundations needed to develop a strong, settled team. However the new contract system has not come into existence yet. The first National Football League (NFL), the Philips League, started with much fanfare. It was supposed to usher in professionalism into Indian football. Unfortunately even after 11 editions, the journey to professionalism did not materialise. Through the passing years the popularity of the NFL and media following waned and it became just a routine tournament.

This was reflected in the total attendance at the 11th NFL, approximately 3,58,050, an average of 3,978 per match (total 90 matches), a far cry from the massive spectator interest in the inaugural edition. In 1997, for crucial matches, crowds of 25,000-30,000 flocked the Nehru Stadium, Margao, whilst at the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata, East Bengal’s key matches against JCT and Churchill Brothers attracted crowds of 70,000. Even in Delhi, where JCT played several of its home matches, attendance was high and about 20,000 witnessed the key clash against East Bengal.

The first Philips League was popular amongst both the fans and the print and electronic media. Continuous, in depth, media coverage put players like Baichung Bhutia, IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri and Bruno Coutinho on the road to stardom.

However the AIFF just could not sustain the momentum gained by the Philips League. Signs of decline were evident by the 5th NFL, when inadequate marketing and advertising of key matches and frequently delayed match itineraries led to the NFL losing media and spectator popularity. Despite such setbacks, several positives emerged from the NFL: the quality of foreign players improved; Indian club teams adjusted to frequent travel for away matches, players’ salaries grew, Mahindra United and Dempo emerged as new powerhouses and new clubs like Sporting Clube de Goa and Churchill Brothers made their presence felt.

Sadly neither the I-League nor the NFL could usher in a new era for Indian football. They proved to be yet another false dawn. Proper marketing and professional management is required. Otherwise the warnings of history will have gone sadly unheeded by the AIFF as it starts with its third experiment in the winter months of 2017.

The author is a well-known sports commentator and columnist