In two leagues of their own: how India’s domestic structure has stagnated football

In two leagues of their own: how India’s domestic structure has stagnated football

Despite boasting the largest youth population in the world and a rapidly advancing economy, Indian athletes have always flattered to deceive on the international stage in most sporting events across the globe. In the case of football, the national team is currently ranked a dismal 137 in the official FIFA ranking. India is often referred to as the sleeping giant of world football given its massive potential as a footballing entity and as a market, but the way things are, it doesn’t seem like it is waking up anytime soon.

Once a continental powerhouse in the sport in the 1950s and early 60s, India lost all three of its group matches at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup and conceded 13 goals in the process, after qualifying for the tournament for the first time since 1984. They again failed to qualify for the next edition in 2015 and most recently finished bottom in a five-team group in the second round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, winning just one game and losing the other seven in a group that consisted of Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Guam – a tiny Pacific island with a population that is 0.013 percent of India’s.

Things could have been different, though, had the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided to send a team to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. India qualified by default following a host of withdrawals from other teams, but the governing body decided that the World Cup wasn’t worth travelling halfway around the world for and that the Olympics, scheduled for two years later in Helsinki, were more important to prepare for. In 1951, New Delhi hosted the first-ever Asian Games and India picked up the gold medal, defeating Indonesia in the quarters and then Afghanistan in the semis, before clinching a 1-0 win over Iran in the final.

India’s greatest moment in international football came at the 1956 Olympics, where they finished in fourth place after losing the bronze medal playoff 3-0 against Bulgaria. They were the first Asian side to reach the Olympic semi-finals and with a trio of goals in India’s 4-2 win against hosts Australia, Neville D’Souza also became the first Asian to bag a hat-trick in the Olympics.

With all these glories now in the rearview mirror, the road ahead for Indian football does not look promising. In major urban centres of the country, European football is dominant and you can spot many youngsters in Manchester United, Liverpool or Barcelona jerseys walking down the street. Support for Indian clubs is almost negligible. While a large majority of the population remains obsessed with cricket, football, especially the domestic version of it, is popular only in a few selected regions.

There are multiple issues that need to be addressed when it comes to taking Indian football forward, and while some flaws are being given consideration, some continue to remain almost unnoticed and unchecked. Perhaps the most grievous situation is of the professional league structure in the country, which is a unique cocktail that is distinct from any other model followed around the world.

It is highly unreasonable to expect football to develop without a well-defined and practical circuit – something that is vital to maintain a regular flow of talented players coming in and is usually a given in nations across Europe and South America. 

The primary league competition is known as the I-League, which runs for a duration of four months from January to April. It was in 1996 that the first domestic league was started in India, known as the National Football League (NFL) and it was later rebranded as the I-League in 2007 after the NFL venture failed due to poor infrastructure, lack of professionalism and clubs going defunct due to financial woes.

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The primary objective for the new league was to have 16 teams from across the country by the start of its third season but the latest one in 2016 saw just nine teams take part, a far cry from what was initially envisioned. Each club in the league has to register four foreign players, of whom at least one has to be from an Asian country, and the winner gets a chance to play in the qualifying round of next season’s AFC Champions League, while the runner-up qualifies for the group stage of the AFC Cup.

The second division of the I-League was started in 2008, with 12 teams taking part in a single round robin format. Last year saw the format change to the traditional home and away league system, and in the latest edition this year, just six teams contested for one spot in next year’s I-League.

As of now, 2017 will see only eight teams in the top flight and that too after the reinstatement of Aizawl FC, who were relegated this year. There is a large amount of speculation about the participation of the teams from the state of Goa, namely Dempo, Salgaocar and Sporting Goa and given the current circumstances, it is only Dempo that will feature next year.

The AIFF has invited bids from new clubs for direct entry to the first division as well and with the next season slated for a 7 January start, the process for submitting and evaluating bids is still on following multiple deadline extensions. With almost a month remaining until the start of the season, the teams that will feature are still to be finalised, such is the troublesome state of affairs.

There are various other issues that plague the top division of Indian football. The financial situation of almost all clubs is unhealthy, with the major source of revenue being sponsorship money, as proceeds from the television rights go directly to the AIFF and merchandise and matchday ticket sales are minuscule. The last nine years have seen four clubs shut up shop due to financial troubles. As a result, the quality of foreign players coming in, which has declined steadily over the years, is limited and consequently the quality of football is below par and player development also takes place at a slow pace.

The coverage of the matches on TV is disappointing and viewership is low due to poor promotion, marketing and scheduling, with most games being played in the afternoon. A few clubs such as Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC have dedicated fan bases, but in general the attendance numbers are disheartening when compared to similar stature leagues around the world. Also, the northern, central and western part of India, which includes the national capital New Delhi, remains untouched and unrepresented in the top flight.

The year 2014 also saw the coming of the Indian Super League (ISL), which was formed primarily to make football a bigger sport in the country and to raise the profile of Indian football across the world. While the I-League ends in April, the ISL has been played from October to December in the last three years, with the third edition currently underway. 

It is funded and promoted by Reliance Industries, which is one of India’s largest conglomerates and has its branches in a host of activities – one of them being football. It features eight franchises, all different entities from the I-League clubs, facing off in a home and away league system, with the top four qualifying for the semi-finals, which are played over two legs. There is no system of promotion and relegation in the league and it is not a part of the official Indian football structure.

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A strong financial backbone means that the ISL has been able to elevate football’s status as a mainstream sport in the country. Over the last three seasons, it has been able to attract some major names as marquee signings, which has helped capture audiences and also contributed to the development of local players. Season one saw the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Luís Garcia and David James feature, season two had Nicolas Anelka, Roberto Carlos and Simão, and currently, the third edition consists of players such as Florent Malouda, Diego Forlán, Lúcio and Hélder Postiga. The three seasons have also seen names such as Zico, Marco Materazzi, Gianluca Zambrotta and David Platt take up managerial positions, which has helped raise the profile of Indian football.

Matches are played almost every day at 7pm, which is the prime-time slot for television, and the league is marketed rigorously on TV and social media, which has helped drive up ratings for football and has made a few Indian players household names, giving them fame and recognition across the country.

The eight teams contesting the league are spread across India, which has helped the sport enter unchartered waters and capture viewers from non-traditional football zones such as Delhi and Chennai. Another positive that has emerged from the ISL is the rising attendances across the country with season two seeing an average attendance of 26,376 despite having most matches on weekdays.

However, the ISL is not the panacea it wished it was, and is fraught with its own set of flaws and problems. The most obvious criticism of the league is its duration – two and a half months surely is too short for any eight-team league. This means a new game almost daily, and in a country as geographically vast as India, travelling and match preparation becomes a serious challenge.

Luís Garcia, who won the inaugural 2014 edition with his Atlético de Kolkata side, said in a recent interview: “Travelling to away venues far away in a span of few days was very hectic and difficult but we managed to keep ourselves fit and in tune as the league progressed. It was a matter of listening to what your body wants and staying in shape accordingly. Once, we had three matches in a single week and even though I wanted to play in every game, I had to take rest for one match.”

Due to the paucity of time, it is hard to judge the ability and long-term potential of a particular player over the course of the tournament and, consequently, identifying talent for the future – something that the league claims it does – becomes an exercise in futility. All ISL teams are required to have a grassroots programme targeted at children aged six to 14 but its success or failure can only be assessed after a minimum of say, seven or eight years. In the short run, its primary objective is just to cultivate an interest among children and it is not an intensive programme that is aimed at creating a pool of talent for the future.

Last year, members of the national team had to miss the early part of the ISL since they had to play in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, something that was completely disregarded while actually preparing the schedule of the league. Does this happen anywhere else in the world? Probably not.

The I-League and Indian Super League take place in the same year, have two mutually exclusive sets of teams and feature almost a common pool of Indian players centrally contracted to one team from either league. Isn’t it much simpler to have one common structure with multiple divisions like in England and the rest of Europe? In May this year, the AIFF revealed the first draft of a new structure where the existing eight ISL sides, along with two or three clubs from the I-League, will form the top division, while the rest of the I-League clubs will play in the League One, which as of now is the second tier. The plan looks enticing on paper but there are monumental challenges in its implementation.

A glaring one is finding an adequate number of players to fill the rosters. The AIFF does not have a formal count of the professional players in India and the players who ply their trade in the I-League are the ones who feature in the ISL, which means that the current pool is insufficient. 

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Another is the issue of integrating I-League and ISL teams from the same city or region, which essentially becomes a battle between legacy and money. The sides from the former have comparatively larger and deep-rooted fan bases as well as club histories, but when it comes to financial prowess, it is the ISL sides that hold a significant advantage due to the franchise-based ownership system. Let’s take an example from the city of Kolkata, the hub of football in the country. 

Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are the two I-League teams from the city, both sharing the Salt Lake Stadium and a fierce rivalry that is almost a century old – an Indian Old Firm, one can say. The Kolkata derby is the biggest contest in Indian football with attendances reaching over a 100,000 people and often leading to clashes among the two sets of supporters. Both clubs have deep cultural ties with their fan bases that have been built over generations. On the other hand is the city’s ISL side, Atlético de Kolkata, who won the title in 2014, are partly owned by Atlético Madrid and also play their home games at the Salt Lake Stadium.

With the merger coming somewhere in the near future, something surely has to give as all three teams cannot possibly coexist. Having Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in the same league would severely affectA tlético’s fan base and an amalgamation between the two I-League teams is impossible because of the animosity between the long-term rivals and their sets of fans. With Atlético assured of a place in the top division, it is difficult to see either Bagan or East Bengal take the plunge into the second tier given their decades of history and high legacy value, which is something that their fans are also very attached to and sentimental about. However, playing in the top division would mean a sharp rise in expenditure and financial requirements, which again is a bone of contention with the existing owners of both clubs.

It’s a precarious set of circumstances and the AIFF will require a significant amount of time and negotiation to find a practical solution. A similar situation exists in the state of Goa, where we have old I-League clubs such as Sporting Goa, Salgaocar, Dempo – all rich in history and silverware but not very keen on loosening their purse strings. The owner of the ISL franchise FC Goa explained in an interview from last year saying that under the existing revenue model and the financial implications of the move, a merger is not possible in the long term. While the initial draft was framed with the objective of merging the league for the 2017-18 season, the president of the AIFF, Praful Patel, himself admitted last month that the reshuffle is unlikely in 2017. Given the current state of affairs, the merger continues to remain a distant dream.

In this dark cloud that is the prevailing situation, a possible silver lining is the fact that India will host the under-17 World Cup next year. It will be the first FIFA tournament the country has ever hosted and it might just prove to be the shot in the arm that Indian football needs.

A team of probable players that will represent the nation at the World Cup has been meticulously reared over the last couple of years under the guidance of coach Nicolai Adam. The side has travelled abroad to various countries such as Spain, Germany and Norway on trips and has performed well against foreign sides. Their first taste of competitive football came in the AFC under-16 Championships held in Goa, where they could only manage a point from their three group matches. Despite the results, the young side impressed with their dynamic and fast-paced football, and with still a year to go until the World Cup, there are genuine hopes that they will be able to hold their own in front of the world’s best junior sides.

With a major FIFA event on the horizon, another issue with respect to the league’s scheduling is bound to crop up. The World Cup is scheduled to run from 6-28 October next year and six venues – Kolkata, Kochi, New Delhi, Navi Mumbai, Guwahati and Margao (Goa) – have been approved by FIFA for the same. The ISL, on the other hand, has always kicked off in the first half of October for the last three editions and out of the six venues mentioned above, four are currently in use for the ongoing ISL tournament.

With the I-League and ISL merger still far away, there is a certain clash on the cards towards the end of next year, and when asked about the same in an interview, defender Sandesh Jhingan – a starter in the national side – stated that he had no idea what will happen to the ISL in the coming year and that this question should be asked of Nita Ambani (founding chairperson of the ISL) and Praful Patel.

A lot is expected of the young guns who will turn out for India at the under-17 World Cup as they will be the next generation that will represent the national team and take the country to new heights in the most popular sport in the world. But once they turn professional in the next few years, how is it possible for them to function and harness their true potential without a supportive and practical domestic structure?

Will we have a unified league in the next few years or will the kids have to slog it out in two separate competitions like their seniors have, to no positive effect? We can only wait and watch. Until then, the sleeping giant can continue its slumber without having to worry about waking up anytime soon.

By Shraishth Jain. Follow @shraishth_jain

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