Asian football award nomination no cause for celebration
India’s premier football competition, I-League, was on Thursday named by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) as one of the ten nominees in the ‘Best Developing Football League of the Year’ category for the annual SPIA Awards (Asia’s Sports Industry Awards), to be held in Bangkok on November 19-20.
While the league wasn’t nominated for the top prize -- ‘Best Inspiring Football League of the Year’ award -- given India’s low standing in the sport, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) claimed in its press release that I-League was among the top three nominations in its category. The league was listed third – behind Bhutan and Guam – only because it was alphabetical.
Shortly after the nominations were announced, AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said, “I would like to congratulate everyone who has been part of the League – FSDL (Football Sports Development Limited, a joint venture of Reliance and Star Sports and founder of the Indian Super League), the clubs, the sponsors, all other stakeholders and my colleagues in AIFF without whose support this wouldn’t have been possible.”
Sunando Dhar, I-League CEO, said, “We’ve been striving hard over the years and this nomination is only a motivation for us to do better.”
The irony of the nomination and AIFF gloating can’t be missed given that the future of the I-League -- which lives in ISL’s shadow -- is up in the air.
It is a matter of time before ISL is turned into the top flight of India’s league structure. Last year, the then I-League champions Aizawl FC and other top-flight clubs were faced with the prospect of relegation to the second tier of a re-formed league pyramid, which would have had ISL at the top. Following club resistance and failure to come up with a new structure, two leagues were continued with.
Last season, ISL and I-League were held simultaneously and the top-flight was weakened by the departure of Bengaluru FC and most of its core Indian players to ISL.
A 17-page report by a two-member panel appointed by FIFA and AFC has called for a unified league structure by next year and expansion of the top-flight to 16 teams by 2022-23. The report also recommended a review of parts of AIFF’s agreement with FSDL. Failing to reform the league structure by 2019-20 will see Indian clubs banned from Asian competitions.
With ISL, the future top-flight, still a closed league and there being no sign to the end of the dual-league impasse, nomination for a second-tier award is no cause for celebration for the AIFF.