Praful Patel looks for happy marriage between ISL and I-League

All India Football Federation president Praful Patel is in an unenviable position as he tries to douse the flames of discontent that threaten to engulf Indian football. He, however, wants the conversation to move away from the usual debate between the ISL and the I-League to developing the game at the grassroots.

Published : Jul 29, 2019 19:31 IST , New Delhi

"The ideal long-term solution will have one league with promotion and relegation. No FIFA or AFC will allow us a closed league. So, there’s no need to worry for these I-League clubs," said All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel.
"The ideal long-term solution will have one league with promotion and relegation. No FIFA or AFC will allow us a closed league. So, there’s no need to worry for these I-League clubs," said All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel.

"The ideal long-term solution will have one league with promotion and relegation. No FIFA or AFC will allow us a closed league. So, there’s no need to worry for these I-League clubs," said All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel.

All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel is in an unenviable position as he tries to douse the flames of discontent that threaten to engulf Indian football. He, however, wants the conversation to move away from the usual debate between the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League to something more meaningful. “The debate is going in the wrong direction; focus should be on grassroots. My satisfaction comes from that,” Patel says.

You took over the reins of the AIFF from Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi in 2008. And your innings here comes to an end soon. How has the journey been?

It has been exciting but at times turbulent. But at the end of the day it is a journey which has made lot of meaningful contribution to Indian football for decades to come. Football in India had gone through a bad phase and to recover from that was not easy. One good thing that has happened is we have been able to lay the foundation for a strong footballing culture and the genesis of a strong footballing nation.

As we realised over the years that unless and until we build a strong foundation, we will not be able to develop the game to its full potential. We feel happy with a lot of things. We don’t realise that our football – at least when I took over – had no foundation apart from some isolated experiments by the Tata Football Academy and a couple of others. We had no models for youth development. So, we could throw up random stars like Bhaichung (Bhutia) and Sunil (Chhetri). You need to have a strong national team and the country starts following.

Cricket does well because few countries compete, and the national team does well; the country follows it heavily. In the good old days, hockey used to do well and the country used to follow. In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, India used to do well in football at the Asian level and Indian football had the recognition. But then we dipped. In the time period, till I came in, we had not done enough to promote grassroots football. We got the Under-17 World Cup (in 2017) to turn the focus to youth. The same reason applies for bringing the girl’s Under-17 tournament.

Are we well prepared to host the girl’s Under-17 World Cup next year?

It is not a question of well prepared, there’s nothing like best prepared. We concentrated for four years for the (boy’s) Under-17 World Cup. It is not just about getting the recipe right for one tournament, it’s about bringing the focus to youth development. We have got the licensing criteria done for all the clubs, be it ISL or I-League. The grassroots programme needs to be integrated with this.

What are your expectations from women’s football?

Women’s football is doing well; they are getting exposure. I will be happy if  Sportstar  does a story on the youngsters.

RELATED| U-17 Women's World Cup: India hosts, game plan awaited

What’s the plan for grassroots development?

We had Robb Bann; he was a very seasoned technical director and gave us the Vision 2020 document, a masterplan which didn’t exist before. We did well to implement most of it. World Cup Under-17 was part of it. We have now established baby leagues and many age-group tournaments. All that will pay dividends in the future.

Should we now focus on implementing a uniform playing style much like Germany did in the early 2000s?

The AIFF is working on a larger uniform platform. Whatever discrepancies are there, we will sort them out. I am not ruling out anything on style; this is best left to the technical people. Unlike Germany or any other country, India is too vast and too diverse. At the AIFF, we are struggling for money. We don’t have the luxury of money. We don’t have the complete unstinted support of the government. We as a federation need to work within our limitations. Ultimately, states – be it in Germany – have a larger role to play. Here, barring a few states, I don’t see any aggressive support for the sport.

But world over football is developed by clubs. Don’t the ISL and I-League clubs need to do more to promote grassroots football?

Clubs are participating and building teams at every level with baby leagues and other tournaments. We are spreading the role of development from the federation to the clubs. We have to give the clubs some leeway as we can’t expect them to do everything at one go. They are doing a lot of work. I can’t say I-League clubs – like before – are completely non-performing. The ISL and I-League clubs have contributed quite a bit.

You were recently elected to the FIFA Council. Why did you run for this office?

The reasons for running are not attributed to any particular issue. It’s a larger recognition for Indian football. Any country which has a great footballing culture, or which has a future in football, needs to be there. A country of India’s size needs to be represented there. I may bring in my extra to the table, but at the end of the day it’s a recognition of India’s importance in football. Sitting at the high table will also help India. At the end of the day, getting a FIFA World Cup – the under-17 boy’s and girl’s World Cup and anything else in the future – demonstrates India has the potential and the ability to deliver.

RELATED| Praful Patel elected as FIFA Council member, first from India

Forget the performance of the under-17 team in the World Cup, we had a tough group, but our boys are beating the world champion, beating Argentina. The same set of boys drew with under-20 runner-up Venezuela. Have you counted the number of exposure trips these youngsters are getting compared to the past?

Midfielder Jeakson Singh made history during the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, scoring India's first World Cup goal during the side's clash against Colombia at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi.In the 82nd minute, Jeakson towered over the Colombian defence to head in Sanjeev Stalin's corner and put the Indian side on level terms. India, however, succumbed to a 2-1 loss.

Do you think a FIFA role will take you away from Indian football and bring in more uncertainty?

Nothing in any organisation is one-person-centric. Any person coming in will have his style, his ideas. But nothing will stop with one person moving out. The AIFF is a robust organisation; it has its system.

The AIFF secretary must leave because of the age cap in the sports code. Do you think the age cap and other criteria for office-bearers in the sports code might hamper Indian football and other sports?

I don’t support this. I am not saying it for myself. But I believe organisations need leadership, and whoever is offering that in the right way and can give it a sound foundation for today and the future should stay. This is a democratic process; it doesn’t run on personal whims. If you ask me, the AIFF is one of the best-governed organisations.

Current AIFF general secretary Kushal Das.

I am not supporting the age cap, but if the government has defined that, I am not getting into it. It doesn’t bother me; I am happy to follow it. We follow every rule to the last comma and fullstop, whether it’s over finances or governance. It is all very clear and transparent. The AIFF has nothing to worry (about).

Are you planning to set up a FIFA office in Delhi?

I cannot dictate whether there can be a FIFA office in Delhi. But there is a regional system. There used to be a regional office for South Asia here, and now it’s a little more expanded. Given the size of India and the subcontinent, we should look for something more substantial. I will be pushing for it. My agenda is to further enhance India’s position in world affairs, some advantages flowing back because of my presence.

I had no intention to become the AIFF president. Mr Dasmunsi suddenly took ill and I had no other choice and I came in as an interim as everyone thought I could do something. I still harbour no illusion that I am the best person to run Indian football. Maybe tomorrow someone else will be there who can do better.

The introduction of a franchise-based league has been one of the hallmarks of your time. How do you think five seasons of the ISL have helped Indian football?

I would say many things are there. People look at the visible: suddenly you see a tournament and there’s excitement. My biggest satisfaction has been to bring football to a young generation. That will be always important. You have a national team and you have a good coach who will mould it and the players will respond, too. You cannot mould a 25-year-old fully, but if you start with a 12 or 13-year-old, he or she can be moulded in a more effective way and that will be more sustaining.

To achieve this, can’t we have more foreign coaches at the youth level?

We did a good job with the under-17 boy’s World Cup team. We are getting a good international coach for the girls, too. We are working on that. But there’s also debate of giving opportunities to Indian coaches. Indian football must realise there are serious problems with money, investment and passion at every level. There are many arms which must work together at the same time.

Are you happy with the federation’s efforts to broad-base the game?

You see the number of coaches we have developed, but I am not saying everything or enough has been done. India is such a big country that there are too many challenges. It is easy to look at a simplistic way, but today to expand the footprint of Indian football in terms of viewership, play, fan interest…all are important. You cannot have Indian football concentrated in Kolkata, Goa.

Chennai City FC players celebrate after winning the 2018-19 I-League title.

Today we have a Chennai team, a Kashmir team, a Kerala team. But why should there not be a team from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh? We need to have even better geographical representation.

The ISL clubs, despite all the investment, have failed to create a strong fan base compared to the traditional clubs...

If Bengaluru FC can do it, why can’t others? Study what they are doing. The primary difference of opinion is among fans – traditional fans support traditional clubs, but that’s a myopic view. Why do people suddenly follow Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United? Because they have such large investments and can reach out to more people.

“If Bengaluru FC can do it, why can’t others? Study what they are doing,” Patel says about ISL clubs building a strong fan base.

FIFA’s motto today is football must be financially viable; it’s not amateur football. Today a professional footballer will only make it his career if he can sustain himself. There is amateur and professional football, and we are in between somewhere. With the ISL and I-League, we struggle between the old and the new.

What do you think are the fundamental differences between the ISL clubs and traditional clubs?

It’s a chicken and egg situation: what comes first. One side we have traditional clubs that say we have this (tradition), and we will get money and then invest. Then you have a Bengaluru who says we will put the money first and then we will expect things to flow from it. I am not saying one is right and the other is wrong, but the trouble here is fans have the option to follow whatever they want. I can’t force them to watch anything; they will watch whatever attracts (them). But each club has to invest in football. The ISL is not the ultimate in Indian football. And it’s not five years of ISL. The first three years was a small window. Now it’s a full-fledged league. At least initially people started coming in large numbers, they started engaging with fans, to that extent the investment of those clubs is high.

What were the reasons for introducing the ISL?

I-League clubs in between have not been able to bring in money. Even before the ISL came, JCT, Mahindra, Tatas ran away; traditional clubs like Dempo, Salgaocar went away. You couldn’t have an I-league with two clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, who were lucky to have McDowell’s and Kingfisher. Therefore, to say the I-League was fine and there were no other reasons to have another league was not right. You had to expand your horizon and had to think a little big and then we had the IMG-R (IMG Reliance) Master Rights Agreement (MRA).

ATK won the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League in 2014. The side went on to bag a second title in 2016.

This was done when Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi was around and this was done between the AIFF and Zee. I say with conviction what he did then was right because there was nobody around. He did it with a process, with a tender. But Zee, in three-four years, lost interest and was not paying us on time and had thrown up their hands. At that stage, we didn’t know what to do and fortunately, if you look at it, IMG-R came in, negotiated with Zee and took over the balance 10 years. For us, we thought Reliance is a bigger name and IMG also has international experience in sports. And what choice did we have; they were subsuming an existing agreement.

Does FSDL (Football Sports Development Ltd, a company incorporated by Reliance to manage Indian football) have the right to decide the Indian football calendar and the fate of various tournaments?

The calendar is not decided by them alone and it is always in association with the AIFF. And both the ISL and I-League are tournaments of the AIFF; it is a misnomer to say otherwise. Tomorrow FSDL can’t say that they will cease the agreement with the AIFF and ISL will be a separate league which will be acknowledged by AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and FIFA. The tournaments are owned by the AIFF and they have the rights for it for a few years.

When you look at the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India), it has complete control of the IPL (Indian Premier League). Can the same be said about the ISL?

The difference is in the MRA which was entered by Zee. The entire ownership of marketing, sales rights arising from any AIFF tournament rests with them. Here also it’s the same. They manage, they produce, they market it as per the original MRA. The BCCI doesn’t have such legacy issues; we are tied down by them.

If IMG-R had just continued the same way, it would have been floundering. IMG-R are also losing money. Zee fled, and if things had continued the same way, IMG-R would have also left. They said let us start with the ISL and we didn’t have any option. Also, in the interest of Indian football, it was important to start something new. The legacy clubs anyway were dying.

Will the AFC agree for the ISL and I-League to coexist for the next three seasons? They had asked the federation to merge the leagues by 2019-20.

The whole thing is being looked at in a narrow way. You have an ISL, they have a certain financial structure and the I-League has a different structure. You are talking about integrating it, but how will you integrate a club which is spending ₹2 crore a year with one which is spending ₹40 crore. A solution must be found which is a happy marriage between the two. Otherwise it will be the same thing, a club with ₹2 crore investment won’t do well and will always run out of steam and go away. The ISL doesn’t mean guaranteed success; they must keep performing to retain public interest. Otherwise for how many years will they spend ₹30-40 crore.

We had gone to the AFC and said we have the ISL and we want to convert it to a full-fledged league, we have a lot of issues and it will take time.

Are you happy with the control you have over Indian football?

It is completely wrong that we have no control. I cannot do anything more. I have to land in a court of law otherwise. And there the law will be clear that it’s an agreement and we have a contractual obligation. In fact, we have been trying to hold on from giving more control. If tomorrow IMG-R decides to not telecast, not do anything about the I-League, what can we do?

I am trying to balance things to an extent where there can be a viable solution. It’s not a question of being happy with what I have given. In fact, they are unhappy with what I am asking. We are resisting the change they want. We are supporting the I-League clubs and resisting the changes IMG-R wants. Therefore, I went to the AFC and told them that we have unique issues, the I-League has unique problems, let nobody fool themselves that it’s hunky-dory there. We have inducted so many clubs in the I-League. If we wanted to kill it, we would have not inducted them. I gave Churchill (Brothers FC Goa) a chance to come back after they got relegated; same with Aizawl (FC).

Is it against the AIFF constitution to have officials from its commercial partner in standing committees?

Even in the AFC and other boards there are many people who come and attend. They (FSDL) don’t dictate Indian football. Everything cannot be made into an issue. If we want to get the best out of IMG-R, we need to get them involved. They have a mandate to support Indian football for X number of years; we must work with them to get the best. If everyone is unhappy with the MRA, then let the AIFF and everyone decide and cancel the MRA.

What do you think should be the ideal long-term solution for Indian football?

The ideal long-term solution will have one league with promotion and relegation. No FIFA or AFC will allow us a closed league. So, there’s no need to worry for these I-League clubs. I would have talked to FSDL and got certain things through negotiation even if it was against the letter and spirit of the MRA. Five years are gone; they are open to adding more city-based clubs. In another three or so years – the window opens and you can negotiate with IMG-R to allow and integrate after eight years and not 10. They protect the ISL clubs till year 10 and allow lateral entry from season eight. I-League clubs don’t have telecast, they don’t have schedule. We will format it like the ISL with a complete strategy to market the brand and bring them to a level (by then).

The I-League clubs have refused to accept the proposed solution and a few of them have even approached the FIFA president for a solution. What would be your suggestions to them?

Going to FIFA is sullying Indian football and it’s unfortunate.

Can we expect some tough decisions from the AIFF then?

It’s a tough decision to say that I will speak to the AFC and IMG-R. I haven’t spoken to them yet, but since they (six I-League clubs) have summarily dismissed my viewpoints, why should I discuss? I can’t take your viewpoint to somebody and discuss if you give me some hope that you understand and then negate it. I am not talking to anybody; I can’t talk to anybody about a three-year window. It was a proposal, they agreed, there was a joint statement and then they say something else, giving flimsy reasons that I didn’t meet them. I told them that I will meet them between April 11 and 14 as I had the FIFA council election on April 6 and then Lok Sabha election on April 11. This meeting was about the Super Cup, but why should I meet them since they had already decided to boycott the tournament.

RELATED| Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and 4 other I-League clubs write to FIFA on Indian football

I will give them what is workable; I am not against anybody. They said they will go to CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) or the courts; in a democracy I can’t say anything to anybody.

Both the Indian coach and the captain have recently said that players need to play more matches. What can be done to achieve this?

Their opinion is fair enough. That is an issue which can be looked into. We are reviving the Durand Cup, WIFA (Western India Football Association) is reviving Rovers (Cup) so players can have more games. I want the players to benefit. We need a solid pool for the coach to choose from, only then will the national team benefit.

Newly-appointed India football coach Igor Stimac and Sunil Chhetri share a light moment during a training session ahead of the Intercontinental Cup clash against Tajikistan.

Can we say we are happy with the performance of the national team? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because we have moved to 100 from 173 (India’s current ranking is 103rd in the world). But can be that be the benchmark? I will say no. I am not happy.

India has been handed a relatively comfortable draw for the second round of World Cup qualifiers. What are your expectations from Igor Stimac and his boys?

I wish the team the best. We got a good coach, but it’s a tough draw as Oman is there and Qatar, too.

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