In Dilemma – India’s Football Leagues

‘I league’ once the top league of the country is now left to question its own survival and existence with the new kid ‘ISL’ on the block. It’s like that cruel family that has abandoned its old ones to enjoy its new found life and freedom. With the Goan teams opting outing out of the tournament for next year, which ironically could be the last time we hear anything on I league, the already 9 team league has reduced down to 7 and that’s including the promoted team from 2nd Division provided they want to stay.

Football in India has never had an easy journey. In 1997, to bring association based football and more professionalism to the game, National football league was launched with television coverage’s and sponsors and players earning a good deal. It did provide good result to the national teams which had broken into top 100 rankings around this time. But Around early 2000 the fall begun, the league became more known for its unprofessionalism and poor Infrastructure. FC Kochin was disbanded around this time after it was found out that they were failing to pay salaries to their players. By the mid 2000, the league had completely lost interest among the general public, what was supposed to challenge cricket as the most popular sport among the Indians, had lost its audience drastically.

In 2006, after continues failure of National football League, AIFF tried rebranding and relaunched the game with the title I-league.  The fortunes didn’t change much, with most of the clubs incurring losses or just riding on what they were earning. Zee sports that had a contract of global broadcasting of the league wanted to reconsider the contracts as the viewership went down. In 2010, AIFF signed a 15 year deal with IMG-Reliance giving them exclusive rights from advertising, merchandise, broadcasting, franchising, Sponsorship along with the right of creating a new football league. And thus began a new chapter of our Indian football. The next couple of years saw a lot of confusions with mismanagements in and around the league, half of the 2010-11 Season went without a proper broadcasting of games, over the next few months it kept changing from local news channels to regional channels to eventually signing a deal with Ten Network. There were no clear guidelines regarding managerial requirements of A –License which resulted in a unnecessary controversy in presenting coach of the year award, eventually sorted out after the 2012-13 Season by announcing a mandatory set of guidelines. The planning of a new city based league led to Air India and ONGC, the institutional clubs, being expelled.

With the launch of Indian Super League, the complete position of Indian football went in to disruption, be it its calendar, player dilemma, club status, everything went into confusion. Fans got divided into two factions, one that got in to the game because of the all new glamorous, celeb-owned franchise cum city based clubs and the other one who had been lifelong supporter of the legacy and historic clubs like Mohan Bagan or East Bengal. With 2 leagues running in a year, both claiming to be the top league of the country, it affected the National team, with less time for preparation camps, players coming late because of club and league commitments, Losing out on important friendly opportunities. As the National team plunged to its worst ever 172nd ranking and the team’s poor performance in world cup qualifiers, the talk of merge subsequently grew more and more. AIFF, the I league clubs and the ISL franchises on the 17th May had a joint meeting, regarding the future planning of India’s top most league, and came up an idea of 3 tier system, where ISL kept its first place followed by I-league clubs as the 2nd division and the current 2nd division I-league teams to the third place.

While it was obvious that most of the I-league club were making losses, they still opposed the new proposed merger system. Despite the promise of certain revenue from its central pool, the club would still be in loss as there is no revenue for them either from ticket sales or TV rights. It feels unfair that the clubs of such huge legacies and history, the ones that kept running all the years despite incurring regular losses are shoved in to the 2nd division. And with no option of either promotion or relegation from the top league it was just like adding salt to injury for them. With the news that new ISL cubs will be included for the 2017 season, few of the present I-league clubs had been showing interest but they have not been guaranteed either whether they would get it or not.

Whatever happened on May 17th regarding drawing of future roadmap for Indian football, the road still looks filled with rubbles and stones and the drive won’t be a comfortable one. It is still unclear what future holds for these I-league clubs, hoping that it doesn’t end up like AIFF president Praful Patel’s Air India project.

Also Read: A look at the Football Tournaments of India

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