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"Disorganised" presently, Indian football gears up to host U17 Women's World Cup

Disorganised presently, Indian football gears up to host U17 Womens World Cup

Imtiaz Azad

Published: 16 March 2019 4:31 AM GMT
"Utterly disorganised" would be the right phrase that can attribute Indian football at this juncture. On Friday, FIFA president Gianni Infantino declared at the FIFA Council meet in Miami that India will host the U-17 Women's World Cup in 2020. This will be the second FIFA tournament that India will host, after hosting the U-17 Men's World Cup in 2017. While this might look like another moment of glory for India, the sport's future under the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is fraught with uncertainty. Just a day prior to the final of the fifth edition of Indian Super League (ISL), the country's most celebrated football league, it seems the AIFF is yet to draw a roadmap for league football's existence.
From prioritising on the tug of war between the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League to configuring a structure of the Indian Women's League (IWL), AIFF and its President Praful Patel remains mum about finding a solution that has gripped Indian football. 
India is yet to recover from its disappointing show at the Asian Cup after pulling off one of their most inspiring wins over Thailand. It was followed by seven Manipuri women footballers accusing the Indian women's football team assistant coach of favouritism. Amid such fallouts, eight teams from the nation's premier division I-League have threatened to withdraw from the Hero Super Cup, the knockout tournament pitting the ISL and I-League teams together.

Zero Communication

Praful Patel remains strangely silent despite the threat to boycott Super Cup by eight I-League teams looms large. Joining the bandwagon, Minerva Punjab FC did not show up for their qualifier against FC Pune City on Friday and it remains to be seen how the AIFF reacts. The AIFF has not addressed concerns of the I-League teams in a letter dated February 18. The letter sought a meeting with chief Praful Patel, but the politician-cum-sports administrator has not been able even to set up a date for the same. The meeting with Patel was requested to know whether this could be the last season of the I-League and address issues like the possible options for a merger of ISL and I-league. The letter also stated that they had written in the past as well but did not get a response. Miffed by the lack of communication, the I-League clubs have decided to stay away from the Super Cup. The tournament, in fact, has little significance for any participating teams as it does not offer any Asian competition berth.

The disregard for I-League

The I-League began its journey in 2007 with the intention to infuse professionalism in Indian football. Traditional teams from Goa like Dempo Sports Club, Salgaoncar FC, Churchill Brothers FC were booming along with the legendary like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal on equal footing from the eastern side.
When everyone thought the league was confined to a few teams, Aizawl FC, the club from the North-East created history by winning the I-League in 2016-17. Minerva Punjab FC also stunned everyone by repeating the same in the following year. With Chennai City FC winning the title this year, we witnessed five champions in five seasons! Real Kashmir FC also created wonder this season by becoming the first club from that region to qualify for the I-League.
Despite I-League retaining its excitement, it is now being overshadowed by the glamorous franchise-based ISL which re-ignited Indian football in a more fashionable way, the kind which attracts eyeballs. Till the 2016 season, the I-League started after the Indian Super League concluded, which allowed the players to play in both the leagues. But the AIFF decided to run both the leagues simultaneously from the 2017-18 season, which was a major setback for the I-League. The biggest blow to the I-League came last year when the broadcasters started allotting just afternoon slots for its matches while the engaging evening slots were reserved for ISL matches. In spite of knowing about the diminishing popularity, AIFF remained silent on the matter. As I-League continues with its struggle, speculation started looming over its existence. This was exactly the reason the I-League teams had sought for a meeting with the AIFF chief. Talks have surfaced over the I-League's merging with ISL, however, it will involve a complicated and financially taxing procedure which a majority of the I-League clubs will not be able to afford. While the I-League stands on the brink of getting defunct, the status of the Indian Women’s League (IWL) remains in shambles.

IWL in a chaotic state

The IWL has seen the participation of fewer than 10 teams in its two editions, and junior and sub-junior women's national championships. In 2016, the inaugural edition of the league kicked off in Cuttack, Odisha. It saw six teams participate, with FC Pune City and Aizawl FC representing the ISL and I-League respectively. Initially, the AIFF had invited all ISL and I-League clubs to field teams in the tournament, but the expenditure in a sport with limited revenue streams became an impediment. Most players of the IWL still need a day job to make a living, unlike their male counterparts, who have had a league since the National Football League starting in 1996.
Most ISL and I-League clubs do not have a regular women’s team—they assemble one for competitions. In 2017, they even didn't bother to do the same. AIFF has simply been careless about organising its women's tournament despite having its financial reserve. A FIFA report states that India was allotted a $700,000 worth contribution to establishing a women’s league in the country. The grassroots programmes run by the AIFF only last for a day or two. At the FIFA Women’s Regional Development Seminar and India Development Workshop in 2014, AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das outlined the federation’s short-term goals for the women’s game, stating that they aimed for the women’s national team to be in the top 40 and top eight of the FIFA World Rankings and Asian Rankings respectively. Five years later, India in the FIFA women's team rankings stands at 62. In Asia, they are ranked 11th -- behind Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Jordan and Iran, among others. AIFF's silence remains the root cause of the chaos Indian football is embroiled into. Not only the I-League standoff, nobody from the AIFF released any statement even after the Indian women's team players alleged of favouritism and withdrew themselves. Furthermore, the post of Indian men's football team coach still remains vacant after Stephen Constantine announced his exit after the AFC Asian Cup. With no hopes of resolving the multi-layered problems any time soon, things seem to have gone way beyond AIFF's control.
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