Three different champions of India in three seasons, with the league winners being decided in the last round in two, the national team getting to their highest-ever Fifa ranking (101) in two decades, a World Cup around the corner with the Prime Minister exhorting all to not let the under-17 extravaganza just be an end in itself; you would be thinking the buzz around football in India hasn’t been this positive in a long time. And you would only be partly right.
So, what’s not to like? The uncertainty about the future of India’s league structure. At the end of the final day of the 10th I-League, there is no clarity about the 2017-18 season. Will India stay a two-league nation? Which teams would play in the top tier? Just as opaque is whether there will be a players’ draft for the fourth edition of the Indian Super League (ISL).
There are enough reasons to revamp the I-League; lack of supporters-based clubs and lukewarm sponsors’ interest being just two. “Enough is enough,” said Larsing Ming Sawyan, speaking over the phone from Shillong.
“We need to create a league that will be longer and stronger, we need a tiered structure of competition that needs to be in place for the next 10 years,” said Sawyan who wears three hats in football administration: general secretary of Shillong Lajong, president of the Meghayala Football Association and a vice-president of the All India Football Federation.
“Development is a relative term. Look at what is happening in football in China. If you are moving at 15km per hour after having averaged 5km per hour for long and the world is travelling at 60kmph, would you call that development,” said Sawyan whose club has recently bought 30 acres for an academy.
Bhaichung Bhutia too said it was time the I-League was re-looked at. “A longer, tiered league will mean greater employment for Indian footballers. Right now, there are only about 50 players who are playing in the ISL and the I-League. Once that stops and the leagues get longer, over 100 players will be employed. A seven-month league is a welcome step,” said Bhutia.
But wouldn’t staging India’s main league without the champions of the season is just going to be like scoring a self-goal and celebrating? Aizawl FC owner Robert Royte said the uncertainty is disheartening and unfortunate. Those in the know say seeking legal recourse is an option for them.
“We need to find a way around that,” said Bhutia when asked about that.
From last May when the AIFF and its commercial partners proposed a structure for the new league, things haven’t really moved beyond numerous meetings. And they have focused on a way to accommodate Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in the top tier of the new structure and get them financial backers.
Aizawl FC haven’t been part of the conversation, according to AIFF sources who requested anonymity given the sensitive nature of the issue. There has been a proposal to open bids for slots in the top tier but should Aizawl FC not make it, it would mean India’s representative in the 2017 AFC Champions League is not eligible for the country’s highest league. This sure is one cloud that threatens to blur the silver lining around football in India.