The decline of I-League

With IMG-R, AIFF’s new patron, seeing no future in the ‘lacklustre’ I-League, the existence of the 20-year-old League, is surely at stake.

Baichung Bhutia (15) led JCT’s charge to the first National Football League title in 1996, scoring 14 goals.   -  THE HINDU Photo Library

A successful footballing nation needs a strong club league. The National Football League was launched towards the end of 1996 as the realisation of the need for a pan-Indian football league dawned on the All India Football Federation. Till then the country only had state leagues, while the Federation Cup and a few invitational tournaments gave the clubs some occasion to fight it out at the national level.

A delegation from FIFA came visiting the country in early 1995, apparently to offer a solution to its falling standards at the international stage. It found the sport had stopped progressing after a certain point in time as the mandarins of country’s football administration sat preening over its ‘glorious past’. India, with its immense population and a ready recognition for football, was an attractive destination for the world body, which was looking to expand its market. The Philips National Football League brought together the top 12 teams of the country in a two-stage league championship format with the best eight qualifying from the first round of preliminaries to a Super League, played on a ‘home and away’ format, to determine the champion.

Dempo SC celebrate its 2008 I-League triumph at the Corporation Stadium in Kozhikode. The Goan side is the most succesful club in the national league’s history.   -  THE HINDU Photo Library


A big prize purse (Rs. 35 lakh) and the decision to share a part of the ‘gate money’ with the home side sought to help the clubs break out from an amateurish set-up to a semi-professional system that promised Indian football a link to join the best in the world. As the country braced up to follow FIFA’s prescription, the opening season of the NFL started with huge fanfare. JCT Mills of Phagwara (Punjab) was the first to seize the opportunity, announcing a team that had all the superstars of Indian football — Baichung Bhutia, I. M. Vijayan, Carlton Chapman and Jo Paul Ancheri. The team duly won the inaugural championship with Bhutia claiming the first golden boot as the top scorer (14 goals).

The League turned into a full ‘home and away’ format, much in the lines of the immensely popular English Premier League, from the start of the second edition with 10 teams playing in the elite stage. Mohun Bagan, which exited in the preliminary stage in the inaugural season, returned strongly to win the second edition. This started the dominance of the Kolkata clubs, with Mohun Bagan and East Bengal sharing six titles in the seven seasons between 1997-98 and 2003-04. Salgaocar SC was the lone exception in 1998-99.

East Bengal striker Tolgay Ozbey (20) is challenged by Mohun Bagan defender Dipak Mondal during an I-League encounter in Kolkata on February, 2011. The rivalry between the two Kolkata giants has always been one of the highlights of the national league.   -  The Hindu Photo Library


But, as the League passed through seasons the fan following dipped as did the number of its patrons or sponsors. Beginning with Philips, NFL had four title sponsors as Coca Cola, Tata and ONGC took turns to ensure its sustenance over 11 seasons before the AIFF sought to alter its nomenclature to I-League (in 2007-2008) and make it more professional in approach.

The subsequent decade saw the introduction of the club licensing system and many more edicts of professionalism as the national federation, on the behest of the continental and world bodies, tried to get the clubs in line. As the Kolkata clubs struggled, Dempo SC led the proficiency of the Goan clubs, winning five (including two NFL crowns) titles. Churchill Brothers and Salgaocar SC also won two titles each, introducing the hegemony of the tiny Konkan state till the arrival of Bengaluru FC in 2013.

The conflict started after the AIFF singed a 15-year contract in 2010 with IMG-Reliance, which bailed the Indian federation from a financial crisis, promising an amount of Rs. 700 crore over the contracted period. This happened after AIFF and Zee Sports ended their 10-year contract abruptly after five years, plunging the sport into a realm of uncertainty. Just after AIFF and IMG-R had inked the deal, which gave the latter exclusive commercial rights to sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, video, franchising, and rights to create a new football league, 12 of the 14 I-League clubs ganged up and refused to sign the AFC club licensing criteria. This unprecedented unity came with the demand that “the licensing criteria should only be implemented if the federation follows the AFC guideline of having the I-League as a separate entity.” Within a year, the Indian Professional Football Clubs Association (IPFCA) was formed apparently to safeguard the interest of the I-League clubs.

The introduction of the I-League had its positive impact on the national team, which qualified for the AFC Asian Cup in 2011 for the first time in 27 years. Though the Indian team exited after losing all its matches in the group league stage, Indian football came to reclaim some of its lost glory in the continental scenario. But with AIFF’s new patron, which held all the commercial rights, seeing no future with the ‘lacklustre’ I-League and the introduction of the glamorised Indian Super League the existence of the 20-year-old League is surely now at stake.

Bengaluru Football Club took the Indian football scene by storm, wining two I-League titles in its first three seasons. Here the players celebrate the club’s second championship victory in April 2016.   -  K. Murali Kumar


Syed Nayeemuddin, the legendary Indian captain who went on to be decorated as football’s only Dronacharya coach, finds the flaw in NFL/I-League failing to bring out enough players of international merit. “I feel the tournament failed in convincing clubs to groom their own players. Most of the Asian countries with successful leagues have some of their players going and playing in European clubs. That strengthens the National team in the end,” Nayeemuddin says. “Now comes the question why the clubs shirked from investing in youth development. Funding could have been one issue as it was increasingly difficult to get sponsorships in an environment where the corporate entities didn’t find much charm in investing in football clubs.”

Henry Menezes, also an India international who is now the CEO of Western India football Association and a member of the AIFF technical committee, says the I-League suffered as it “failed to create the ecosystem that would see the emergence of more community-supported clubs.”

Stating that the corporate clubs depend on the whims of its owners or ‘board’ (of directors), Menezes felt that community supported clubs like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal or Vasco SC, lends more permanence to a league.

Pointing out a major flaw in the Indian club system, he adds: “The football ecosystem gets hampered if all the clubs playing football across the country do not gain a sense of connection with the best in the hierarchy. For most part of the season a club playing in the lower division remains stuck in its zone without ever getting a chance to play the best in the business. We need tournaments like the FA Cup that would bring all the registered football teams to participate in a national format once every season.”