Indian football leagues: Moving in the right direction

In six years, the Indian Super League has been recognised by the Asian Football Confederation as the top division of Indian football and has also become the first League from South Asia to be inducted in the World Leagues Forum.

The Indian Super League’s advent in 2014 attracted some of the world’s biggest names in Alessandro Del Piero (in pic), Roberto Carlos, Diego Forlan, Nicolas Anelka, Zico and Marco Materazzi to Indian shores and fostered a more professional system in place.   -  Sandeep Saxena

Indian football has garnered more worldwide attention in the last five years than it has in a long time. Indian players have come on the radar of foreign clubs and renowned masters of the game, such as Yaya Toure, have recently shown interest in playing in India. There has also been widespread foreign interest from celebrated tacticians like Sam Allardyce and Sven-Goran Eriksson when the post for the men's national team coach was up for grabs last year.

A major chunk of this surge in the development and promotion of Indian football can be attributed to the Indian Super League (ISL). The league’s advent in 2014 attracted some of the world’s biggest names in Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Carlos, Diego Forlan, Nicolas Anelka, Zico and Marco Materazzi to Indian shores and fostered a more professional system in place.

The ISL brought investors and money into the game, two factors that the sport was in dire need of, and looked to emulate the success of cricket’s Indian Premier League. In six years, the League has been recognised by the Asian Football Confederation as the top division of Indian football and has also become the first league from South Asia to be inducted in the World Leagues Forum.

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The arrival of some of the best in the business, such as the City Football Group’s acquisition of Mumbai City FC and Atletico Madrid’s association with Jamshedpur FC saw the ISL grow exponentially and change the ecosystem of the sport, especially in terms of infrastructure development and player exposure.

Albeit in the twilight of their careers, the inflow of foreign stars has helped Indian players massively. For example, an 18-year-old Anirudh Thapa would have not had a chance to rub shoulders with a World Cup winner in Marco Matterazi if not for the ISL.

Mukul Choudhari, CEO of Jamshedpur FC, feels the ISL has helped spread the sport across the length and breadth of the country. “The ISL is a step in the right direction — Indian football is seeing days it has never seen before. The way the AIFF and its commercial partner has taken efforts to spread the ISL across the country is commendable. Earlier, it was limited to teams from the west coast and east coast playing, with clubs mainly concentrated in Goa, Kolkata and the Northeast. But now we have teams from across South, in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Hyderabad, making it a much more pan-India national league than it was earlier,” he says.

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“Earlier, the players from here had to go elsewhere to play but they can now play in their states and that will help build a footballing culture in these areas,” he continues.

He adds the ISL had improved the fan experience. “The league has become much more professional and the audience, which is a very critical part of the game, is getting a fantastic experience. The audience was ignored all this while, and now, with the ISL’s arrival and the top-notch broadcast, their experience has improved tenfold and that is very critical. At the end of the day, we get revenue from television rights and sponsors — and both work only if you have an audience and can attract eyeballs,” he says.

Gaurav Modwel, former CEO of the now-defunct FC Pune City, feels the ISL’s idea to field marquee players in the initial seasons was crucial in putting India on the global football map. “The idea of getting marquee players was to see how much it would affect the viewership in India. Initially, no one knew what the ISL was globally and that’s why we needed to get big players to come in and show others that you could play professional football here. Then other foreign players saw that if a Del Piero or a David Trezeguet can play in India, then we can go as well. That was the first point to make.

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“And the second point was to see if the Indian fans who watched European football would come to the stadium if these foreign stars were roped in. The stadium fills were not as spectacular, but the marquee player concept played its role in putting ISL on the global map,” he says.

While the ISL has provided football a major fillip in the country, there is also the matter that clubs are yet to recover their investments. Industry experts suggest that the eight teams from the ISL’s inception six years ago (Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC joined in 2017) are yet to break even.

Some of the top clubs such as JSW-owned Bengaluru FC and the RPSG group’s ATK-Mohun Bagan reportedly spend upwards of ₹40 crore a season, while smaller clubs such as NorthEast United, owned by Bollywood star John Abraham, spend around half the amount. “The fact that clubs are putting money in the ISL, or any league for the matter, despite knowing they won’t make money in the coming few years is commendable. We should respect the clubs purely for their effort. While the event looks good on the outside, for the clubs to invest in spite of losing that kind of money each year warrants a lot of respect,“ says Choudhari.

Modwel, whose Pune City was disbanded due to financial struggles in 2019, says, “The year we had to sell our franchise was our best year, commercially. Our losses were the least. It was, by far, the best year in our history. It was a huge change — we had the highest sponsorship at the local level, received the highest revenue from the central pool and had the lowest expenses. All our commercial parameters looked good, but sometimes you just can’t sustain. You don’t have to drop from 30,000 feet to die; you can die if you drop from 500 feet too. Our losses had reduced, but we were still in loss and the investments dried up,” he says. The franchise was then sold and rechristened as Hyderabad FC.

He adds that though clubs are yet to see green, their impact in developing football at grassroots level and creating a footballing structure in the country will go a long way.

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A well-placed ISL source says the clubs need to have a long-term approach to sustain in such a space. “The clubs that join a sporting league have to be in it for the long haul and not expect short term gains. An owner needs to have a substantial financial cushion to fall back on to keep the club running despite monetary losses in the initial few years. An average time to make a profit would be around 10 years.”

The AIFF’s recent roadmap for Indian football, which makes ISL the top-tier and aims to introduce promotion-relegation in two years, will serve as a big boost to the sport in India. “While there are a lot of naysayers who feel that the ISL has not helped Indian football, the actual stakeholders — the players and coaches — will say that the professionalism of the league and the money flowing into football has changed everything.

The impact would not have been such if the I-League had been carrying on in the same way. With the AFC roadmap now, you see a tiered structure coming into Indian football. It has taken a while, but the building blocks and foundation is solid and things can only grow from here,” adds the source.