There is no knowing whether the proposals by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to restructure leagues will work. But since they stay just proposals, how about stakeholders replacing indignation with inputs?
I-League, India’s official competition, and the Indian Super League (ISL) can’t exist forever because Fifa won’t allow it. With clubs pulling out, mediocre to poor television coverage and tepid to non-existent interest across India, the I-League’s not in the pink of health anyway.
Winning it last season didn’t end Mohun Bagan’s search for a financial backer. Last Sunday, a Federation Cup semi-final between two I-League teams had less than 1000 people watching!
That’s not to say everything’s hunky-dory with ISL franchises too. Going into season 3, each of the eight franchises has lost approximately between R60-80 crore.
So, something needs to give. The roadmap shared with ISL and I-League clubs on Tuesday in New Delhi has a three-tier league with 10 teams each in the second and third tiers and a yet unspecified number in the top division which, however, would accommodate all ISL franchises.
So, according to the plan, 2017-18 would have at least 30 teams in one official competition. By 2020, the plan is to have 50 teams playing for nine months across India and investing in infrastructure and youth development. It is still far from enough for a country of 1.3 billion but then there were 19 in I-League 1 and 2 combined this term. That’s the first takeaway.
The next is that the calendar looks sorted and footballers won’t have to shift between ISL and I-League clubs because all divisions would be held simultaneously. The plan also is to have dates for 15 India games annually and should that happen, it will be a massive improvement.
But the devil lies in the execution. Accommodating ISL and I-League teams in one tier isn’t an option because there aren’t enough Indian players available. Moreover, the bigger the league the greater the organisational and broadcasting costs. So, criteria need to be set to choose I-League teams for the top tier and that is going to be tricky. Because whatever parameters are set should ensure that Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and I-League champions Bengaluru FC are eligible to play.
Clubs with fans
Mohun Bagan and East Bengal maybe in major financial crisis but even if their history is ignored, their fan bases can’t be.
Some I-League teams will be ‘demoted’ to League 1, the proposed second division, for no fault of theirs. With the top tier being closed to honour franchise contracts, would they be willing to drop down? Also, ISL clubs will need to exist for one year instead of four months and fulfil club licensing criteria something they don’t now.
Scheduling and availability of grounds too could be issues given that matches will be slotted mostly on weekends. All teams have been promised a share of the central revenue pool but ISL teams got nothing out of that in season 1 and are awaiting payments for season 2. There’s also no clarity on what benefits will trickle down to the state associations, a major stakeholder unlike in most countries, and their leagues.
Little to lose
These and other challenges will need to be dealt with in the 19-odd months between now and kick-off but a roadmap has been presented. It should be scrutinised and suggestions forwarded instead of venting in the media as some officials and former internationals are in Kolkata. The National Football League which yielded to the I-League hasn’t worked. Neither has the idea of just having an IPL-like tournament. So what has the AIFF got to lose in floating a new idea?