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Merged league: I-league clubs’ suggestions to be tabled at AIFF ex-co next week

At its executive committee meeting on July 28, somewhat unusually scheduled at the Constitution Club of India that is closer to the Parliament than the seat of football in south-west Delhi’s Dwarka, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) will discuss the vexing problem of merging leagues in 2017-18. 

football Updated: Jul 22, 2016 09:48 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times
football,isl,i league
Given that there are eight ISL franchises and nine clubs in the last I-League, the new competition should, ideally, have 17 teams.(Hindustan Times)

At its executive committee meeting on July 28, somewhat unusually scheduled at the Constitution Club of India that is closer to the Parliament than the seat of football in south-west Delhi’s Dwarka, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) will discuss the vexing problem of merging leagues in 2017-18.

AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said suggestions from the I-League clubs would be tabled. Till Monday, Das said the suggestions received focus on allowing I-League clubs to play in the new league, or at least give them the first right of refusal, without paying franchise fees.

The proposal for waiver of franchisee fees is in light of the clubs’ contribution to football in India. Franchises in the Indian Super League (ISL) that turns three in 2016 pay an annual fee to the league, according to the terms of engagement. The fee varies between R 12-15 crore, said a source in the league. The amount is more than the first team budget of most I-League clubs.

How much is too much?

Given that there are eight ISL franchises and nine clubs in the last I-League, the new competition should, ideally, have 17 teams. The major problems with that are: the operational cost goes up significantly in a scenario where no money is made from television rights (in the ISL, the official broadcasters are also part-owners of the product and there is between little and no interest among broadcasters for the I-League) and an inadequate pool of players. As of now because they are held after each other, there is a massive overlap in players. The team with which Mohun Bagan nearly won the I-League last term had eight players loaned from ISL franchises.

There is also the problem of having multiple teams from one place. Sanjiv Goenka, majority stakeholder at Atletico de Kolkata, didn’t forget to point out at the team’s jersey launch on July 15 that the ISL is about “one city, one team”. So how does the new league, likely to be called ISL, accommodate Mohun Bagan and East Bengal? At the same time, having a unified league without them would be like holding the Ranji Trophy without Mumbai. “You can’t have a major football competition without Mohun Bagan and East Bengal,” Shrinivas Dempo, senior vice-president at AIFF, has always said. Dempo is likely to attend the July 28 meeting.

In Goa, with Dempo returning to the top tier, there could be four teams including FC Goa and that would mean splitting an already small support base or, worse, no fans for all teams barring the one that unites the state in the time of ISL. In Pune, DSK Shivajians and FC Pune City would then battle for an average of maximum 9000 fans (according to attendance figures after eight rounds of ISL2, those of the I-League are a lot lower). Mumbai FC, who are among the teams to have shared their thoughts with the AIFF, will have to compete for a fan base with Mumbai City FC whose average attendance is ISL 2 was 30,900.

Closed league, a disincentive?

ISL franchsies having a 10-year deal also necessitates the new league be closed, that is no promotion or relegation, in the top tier. Major League Soccer in the USA and the A-League in Australia are two examples of closed leagues with arguments raging for and against in both. Since investment is critical to the development of the league, promotion and relegation is now unrealistic, Football Federation Australia’s chief executive David Gallop was quoted as saying by Fox Sports last March. It’s a statement that could find an echo in India.

“We could look at promotion in a few years,” said an official from the AIFF’s commercial partners at a roundtable discussion in New Delhi on May 17 which included the media. While the argument that it gives teams playing in the tier below time to improve infrastructure before diving with the big boys has its merits and some I-League clubs are said to be okay with it, there are others who aren’t. “It’s like telling a student that he will be in Class 10 but not allowed to take the board examination and go to Class 11 for a few years.” said an AIFF official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The AIFF and IMG-Reliance, its commercial partners, have spoken of their being criteria of eligibility for teams in the top tier but the absence of any yet only adds to the feeling of an uncertain future for I-League teams. It is, however, likely that Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and I-League champions Bengaluru FC will be part of the new league that is scheduled to start in November 2017 after the under-17 World Cup. Coincidentally or otherwise, at the time of writing this no suggestions had been forthcoming from them and all three have started preparations for 2017-18.

How many of these problems would be resolved on July 28 is anybody’s guess but the federation official HT spoke to said some I-League clubs are feeling that the AIFF isn’t looking after their interests. “A lot can happen through persuasion and discussions. But for a long time, I-League clubs are feeling they are being instructed and not spoken to. That’s not a happy situation when they spend money to keep football in India alive. No one in principle opposes a bigger, stronger three-tier league as is being proposed. The problem lies in the manner in which it is being carried out,” said the official.

First Published: Jul 19, 2016 12:47 IST