ISL vs. I-League: the big conundrum

Is there room for the I-League and the Indian Super League to come together? Should they come together at all in the first place? The one word that should linger in the minds of the powers that be should be priority. The answer to most questions will depend on what their priorities are, and how strong are the parent body’s convictions once the priorities are identified.

Loyal supporters... the Mohun Bagan fans cheer their team during the I-League finale against Bengaluru FC at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru last season. Losing sight of the fans would only be detrimental to the sport in India.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

Luciano Sobrosa of Pune FC in action against Bengaluru FC in an I-League match. Pune FC, once regarded as one of the more professionally run outfits in the country, have dropped out of the I-League. It indicated at a acertain level that the League has not been attractive enough to retain teams in its fold.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

Indian football, as it exists in its current form, is a classic example of a combination of what we can achieve and could not achieve. The Indian Super League has exhibited that money, which at least thus far hasn’t been a major issue, wisely used, could help in getting people to speak about football and footballers in India. Sceptics might still say a Roberto Carlos is discussed more than the team that he is a part of. And that the crowd gathers to see his feet rather than the team that he is associated with.

An opportunist would highlight the fact that he coming to India is a huge stride forward, while a realist would confess you can’t but not discuss Roberto Carlos.

The takeaways from the above at a macro level are straightforward. A league can be marketed, big names can be flown in, and people can talk about football in India. The question that needs to be asked, therefore, at a micro level is — can this be sustained in the longer run? Will this help develop local Indian talent that will usher in a new era for India in world football? And what happens to the I-League, which of course is the league that’s recognised by football’s ruling body and therefore how does the Indian football administration want to deal with the clubs and the players that play solely in the I-league? Is there room for both to come together at all? Should they come together at all in the first place? The one word that should linger in the minds of the powers that be should be priority. The answer to most questions will depend on what their priorities are, and how strong are the parent body’s convictions once the priorities are identified.

The word merger sounds a bit too strong at this stage between the two competitions that exist. To think that an East Bengal or a Mohun Bagan will be “merged” with someone is almost unthinkable. I use the word “competitions” very carefully. While the FIFA recognises I-League as ‘The League’ in India, playing less than 20 games a season spanning little over four months is hardly a definition of a league. The gradual erosion of celebrated knockout tournaments in India is not helping matters either. ISL does not operate round the year in its current form as well. In essence, therefore, we are looking at a scenario where we are neither here nor there when it comes to projecting a model that will help and develop Indian football in the long run. The longer the delay, the longer we will take towards competing at the world stage. Issues, therefore, relating to increased focus on the ISL and a lack of focus on the Indian national team will crop up from time to time. It will be a matter that will consume us in the longer run.

So, what is the model that will help Indian football in the long run? To understand this, we need to take a look at the stake holders and take them seriously. First, the spectators and hence the fan base. To say that ISL alone has brought crowds back to the stadium is not entirely right. A derby in Bengal can draw far greater crowds and that is a fact. The finale in the I-League last season, where Mohun Bagan took on Bengaluru in an away game, saw a loyal set of Bagan supporters travel to the capital of Karnataka to see their club lifting the title. Royal Wahingdoh, with some fine talent, was a very watchable side last season. You still had supporters and fans watching the games and they were spectators who understood the history of the rivalry that existed between Kolkata clubs. It’s an emotion that takes years to build and we shouldn’t lose sight of the same when we talk of coming together of the two footballing properties. Did we lose sight of the fans that were always there for their teams? Perhaps yes.

 

Next, the players. I remember Sunil Chhetri talking very highly about Bengaluru FC, the club that he is a part of in the I-League. He had always talked about the professional management set-up that hardly ever interfered with the footballing duties of Ashley Westwood.

The success, therefore, was a result of a process of trust and hence performance for Bengaluru FC. Critically too, the backend of the club was alive to the opportunity of wooing in fans and was happy to let the players and the fans bond better.

A corporate entity doing some fine work was behind the success story that Bengaluru was and, therefore, it again was another fine example of the usage of money and resources wisely.

At the same time, one shouldn’t take eyes off what happened to Pune FC. While a certain section might be relieved that another club from Pune is filling in for Pune FC in the I-League, it is important to be alive and, to a certain extent, be alarmed that Pune FC finds itself in a situation that it is in. Not long ago we were talking about the club being one of the more professionally run teams in the country. It indicates, therefore, at a certain level that the league hasn’t been attractive enough to retain teams in its fold. While we should feel happy that newer teams are still willing to test the waters in Indian football, we shouldn’t lose sight of the likes of Pune or JCT or Mahindra that were once important constituents. Is the federation willing to entice and engage the corporates successfully over a period of time is something that the federation will have to work out.

Then comes the aspect of the respective owners of the clubs. The ISL owners would definitely concede that profits, in the immediate future, simply cannot be on top of their minds given the amount of money they spend on players, their salaries, accommodation and travel at this stage. To put it mildly, they stay at very different places when they return to their I-League clubs. But it will be very naïve to assume they wouldn’t want to think of profits at some stage.

Were the stakeholders of the I-League always given the sense of confidence that the stakeholders of the ISL are given? Perhaps not every time. And therefore, if the people in power are indeed going to talk about engaging respective parties of the I-League and the ISL to come together in some form or the other, it should happen in a manner that is mutually acceptable and within a time frame.

The key will be to make sure they understand the value that the Goan clubs or the Kolkata clubs have brought to the table thus far. They bring with them a sense of history and, in a way, they are the very soul of Indian football. That’s why it’s important to engage them and not wait for them to reach a stage where they face a period of uncertainty. They shouldn’t be given away for they have given us so much to celebrate.

The critical issue therefore is not in executing the concept. The critical issue is the concept in itself. The challenges will remain the same whether we get the two competitions together or not. The AFC would still want limited number of foreign players to be a part of a squad. It will be hard to imagine them changing their stance and, therefore, affect the balance for the sake of one competition in India. Sepp Blatter moving on by choice or chance is an issue that the Indian football authorities will keep an eye on. They will have to convince the newer power centres that India wants to be a serious player in world football.

The Under-17 World Cup, sanctioned under the FIFA regime of Sepp Blatter, could be a good starting point.

Robust organisation and hence proving to be a top class host could act as a good reminder that we, as a nation, are interested in an inclusive growth when it comes to football in India. The amalgamation of the relevant players can and should happen but the path will be smooth only if we are convinced ourselves, more than anyone else, that our intentions are clear. The rankings on the world stage might still not matter but I am convinced it will be better than the position that we find ourselves in.

(The writer is a sports presenter)

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