The 2020-21 season of the I-League commences in about three days after a prolonged wait due to the pandemic. This season’s competition will feature 11 sides with Sudeva FC being the new entrant. Mohammedan SC are the other new club, having achieved promotion from the second division in the recently held qualifiers.
Even so, the buzz surrounding the tournament is nowhere close to the interest generated by the Indian Super League (ISL). A major reason for that is East Bengal and Mohun Bagan’s migration from the I-League to the ISL. One might also argue that the weight that these two giants of Indian football carry with them is what had kept the I-League relevant till now. Although that wouldn’t be the most outlandish argument, there are many more factors that make the I-League not just relevant but also important for India’s footballing future.
Since the advent of the ISL, the I-League and ISL have operated in parallel. However, one of the major criticisms of the franchise-based model that ISL follows is that it is a closed league with no system of promotion and relegation. In fact, Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) had negotiated a 10-year non-relegation clause with the franchise owners that guarantees their participation till 2024. A closed league system also meant that any team that wanted to enter the ISL has till date has had to pay a ‘franchise fee’ for the same.
Subsequently, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) presented a roadmap for Indian football last year according to which the winner of I-League in the 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons will be promoted to the ISL. Moreover, teams playing in the I-League will not have to pay any entry fee upon achieving promotion by that time, as they will be included on the basis of ‘sporting merit’. Following this, the 2024-25 season will see the implementation of the promotion and relegation system in ISL.
That is exactly why improving the level of the I-League is of paramount importance if the ISL has to be a sustainable, top-level league in the long run. In the future, teams from the I-League will end up playing in the ISL, which makes their all-round development an immediate need. The I-League also boasts of better territorial representation of the country as a whole, and in turn, dedicated pockets of fandom. This is another major reason why it cannot be overlooked in the long run. It has teams from Kashmir, Delhi, Punjab and individual locations in the North East, making it way more diverse than the ISL. Sreenidhi FC, which is a club based in Hyderabad, will only add to this diversity next season onwards. And this is without even taking the second division sides into consideration.
Also, the ISL being a closed league, most local teams that want to go the professional route have to contest in the lower divisions of the I-League before they can make a name for themselves nationally. Examples for this include TRAU FC, Neroca FC and even 2016-17 I-League champions Aizawl FC. This not just widens the player pool but also ensures that teams can be built bottom-up and compete over a period of time.
Lastly, the commercial success that ISL clubs have achieved notwithstanding, there remains a gap in the grassroots development of football in India. This is where regional teams competing in I-League and second division I-League can prove to be hugely beneficial. Out of all the ISL sides, Bengaluru FC, Jamshedpur FC and to some extent FC Goa are the only ones that can claim to have a structured grassroots plan. On the other hand, Punjab FC (formerly Minerva Punjab) have one of the best academies in the country while clubs from the North East, Kolkata and Goa also have systems (state/city-based leagues, grassroots programmes) that have been in place for a long time.
For the ISL and the I-League to complement each other, the AIFF, FSDL as well as state federations have to work in tandem and ensure that there is congruence in the efforts of both sets of stakeholders. Only then will we be able to see our teams and players compete better against foreign players, only then will Indian football develop in a holistic manner.