Crawl, walk, run, fly. Sundar Raman – the former CEO of the Indian Premier League (IPL) who is now in charge of, among other things, giving direction to Indian football as the head of IMG-Reliance’s sports unit – described the developmental process of the sport in India in these four stages.
For nearly two years, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and its commercial partners IMG-R have struggling to come up with a merger plan for of I-League and Indian Super League (ISL). Everyone agreed the two leagues could not run simultaneously. But no one knew how to merge them.
On Tuesday, AIFF president Praful Patel and Raman revealed the first draft of the new domestic structure of Indian football, which is likely to be in effect from the 2017-18 season. It’s not actually a merger, as many thought it would be. The ISL will in fact become the premier domestic competition. Apart from the existing eight teams, two or three clubs from the I-League will be inducted into it via tender process. The rest of the I-League clubs will form the League One, which is currently the second division.
Unlike the ISL, where there will be no relegation – at least for the initial few years – due to the contractual obligations with the existing franchises, the League One and League Two will have promotion and relegation. All three tiers will be held simultaneously for five months in the first year, which will be expanded to seven after that.
The league season will be followed by the Super Cup, which is currently called the Federation Cup. A total of 16 teams from all three tiers will be a part of it. The top eight of ISL and top four of League One will get direct berths while remaining slots will be filled via a playoff. The winner of ISL and Super Cup will get the two AFC Cup berths.
Legacy vs money
It’s the first time the AIFF is planning an ambitious three-tier structure. And releasing the blue print was the easier part. In rebuilding the football ecosystem, the AIFF has to choose between legacy and money. In the first round, money has won. The federation knows most I-League clubs do not have the financial muscle to sustain themselves in the ISL. On an average, an I-League club spends around Rs8-10 crore per season. The ISL franchises spend three times more.
In the current scenario, only three clubs – Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC – can hope of surviving in the ISL unless the others decide to wither merge with an ISL franchise or decide to loosen their purse strings, which is unlikely going by the prevailing sentiment among the club owners.
The biggest casualty of this proposed structure is the legacy of the existing clubs. In all probability, next year could be the last one for the famed East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan derby. Or it could wipe off all that the Goan clubs have done in the decades they’ve spent in Indian football.
The AIFF and IMG-R concede they can’t keep everyone happy, with Patel stressing that ultimately, football is a business which demands serious investment. In the meeting, clubs like Sporting Clube de Goa and East Bengal raised their concerns over this issue. But the organisers are unlikely to budge.
There are talks that one of the Kolkata clubs might merge with Atletico Kolkata. It’s a scenario which the AIFF and IMG-R hope will materialise as three clubs from that region would be inconvenient and East Bengal and Mohun Bagan’s presence would severely hit Atletico’s fan base.
Once these issues are sorted, the organisers will face another hurdle. The three tiers would require roughly 630 Indian players assuming there are 30 clubs with a squad of 25. Right now, the AIFF does not have count of the professional players in India.
But the players who play I-League also ply their trade in ISL, and overall, the player pool is shallow. “Initially, the lower division clubs might struggle but they will have to develop players eventually. That’s the ecosystem we want,” Patel said.
Grounds, too, will be an issue since most of the teams share the stadiums at present. This is still the first draft; alterations are expected but more or less, this is how the revamped Indian football structure will look. It may attract a few brickbats but as Raman said, Indian football is not at the ‘fly stage yet.’ But is it crawling towards the right direction?
How Indian football season may look from 2017-18
August: Champions Cup – a four-nation international invitational tournament on the lines of Nehru Cup to be held on annual/biennial basis.
November to March: Indian Super League — The Indian Super League, which is a three-month tournament now, will become the main league. The 8 existing franchises will stay while two or three clubs from I-League will be added via tender process.
League One: The remaining I-League clubs will form the League One, or the second division. Ten teams will be a part of this division, with relegation a part of their system.
League Two: It will be divided in four zones – East, West, North and South. The team finishing on top of League Two will be promoted to League One. The three divisions will be played simultaneously.
April-May: Super Cup — Will replace the Federation Cup. Will include best teams from all three tiers, the higher placed ones getting direct entry while others going through playoffs. The winner will get AFC Cup berth.
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