The All India Football Federation (AIFF) and IMG-Reliance’s (IMG-R) decision to increase the number of teams in the Indian Super League (ISL) and its duration has given rise to speculation that it might supersede the I-League to become the premier domestic competition. Former I-League champions Bengaluru FC have already shown interest in jumping ship while East Bengal, it is believed, wrote to the AIFF and sought a meeting on May 22. And with Mohun Bagan, too, likely to make the move, the remaining I-League clubs now fear that they will be left redundant. Here’s the conundrum surrounding the two leagues explained and its potential ramifications for Indian football.
What is the latest proposal and how will India’s domestic structure be next season on?
It’s yet to be made official but it is believed the ISL and I-League will run simultaneously for five to seven months. The winner of the I-League will compete in the AFC Champions League playoffs and efforts are on to get an AFC Cup spot for the ISL champions. A new tournament, Super Cup, has been proposed, which will have top-four teams from both leagues. It will replace the existing Federation Cup.
Is it normal to have two parallel leagues, as it might soon be in India with ISL and I-League?
No. Normally, every country has one premier league and one Cup tournament. In October 2014, then FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke had said on his visit to India: “We will not call ISL a league. For us, there is one league and it is the I-League. ISL is a tournament and helps in the recognition of the sport, because it brings a lot of attention not only in India, but also outside. But then again, you cannot have two leagues in a country – it doesn’t work. So, for us, there is one league under the aegis of the federation and that’s the I-League.” AIFF president Praful Patel, too, had echoed his views.
So will the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and FIFA allow this to happen?
It looks like, yes. Last week, former IPL CEO and current head of Reliance Sports Sundar Raman travelled to Bahrain to meet AFC general secretary Dato Windsor on the sidelines of the FIFA Congress. AIFF secretary Kushal Das was also present during the meeting and it is believed the AFC has agreed to make an exception and grant ISL recognition. Windsor himself is expected to make a visit to Delhi in the last week of May to make the announcement.
Why this sudden change of heart?
How the AFC explains this, if it indeed happens, is still unknown. But eventually, they will support a league that has AIFF’s backing. The federation gets roughly Rs 50 crore annually from IMG-R and it does not wish to bite the hand that feeds it. So it has gradually softened its stand on the ISL and is now backing it to be the recognised league.
Is this structural change necessary?
Yes, extremely. The Indian football calendar is a shambles right now. The I-League begins in January and ends in April/May. Then, the Federation Cup takes place in unplayable conditions in May. The ISL pre-season begins in July or August and the tournament ends in December. In between, there are international matches and camps. So the players essentially play all year long without a break . Also, the AIFF is under pressure not to organise international friendlies during the ISL. A revised structure would go a long way in sorting out the domestic calendar.
How are I-League clubs reacting to this?
They are insecure about their future. Because of its financial might, the players prefer ISL over I-League, which is practically a semi-professional tournament. The ISL is also promoted aggressively and is shown live on television during prime time, which means it is a lucrative investment for the sponsors. The I-League is poorly marketed and does not have a TV deal for next season. Naturally, the I-League clubs feel threatened and have opposed this move.
Are any I-League clubs expected to join the ISL?
Former champions Bengaluru FC have already picked up the bid document, which has to be submitted by May 25. The ISL has left the door open for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal as well by inviting bids for franchises from Durgapur and Siliguri. Bagan have their youth academy in Durgapur while Siliguri has been the second home to East Bengal.
East Bengal, it is learnt, wrote to the AIFF and sought a meeting on May 22. How would they benefit from joining the ISL?
There’s plenty to gain for them and, seemingly, little to lose. The visibility ISL gets is much more than the I-League and the tournament is better organised. If it’s a longer league, the standard of foreign players, too, is likely to get better. Plus, the clubs also stand to earn revenue from the central pool, although that hasn’t happened as promised in the first three seasons. All this is missing from the I-League.
Are there enough players, grounds, referees to conduct two tournaments?
All the top players are expected to play in the ISL because of the big bucks it offers. The biggest problem is the availability of grounds and match officials for running ISL and I-League simultaneously. Even the AIFF and IMG-R see it as a challenge but not big enough to stop them from going ahead with this.