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Opinion: There's no scope for the I-League to survive in the long run

Opinion: Theres no scope for the I-League to survive in the long run

Abhranil Roy

Published: 15 July 2019 4:13 AM GMT
The three-year-long drama is finally coming to a headfirst, with Mr Praful Patel having finally met the conglomerate of I-League clubs on July 3rd. This was after the clubs had been requesting for a meeting with the president of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) since February, just to discuss the roadmap ahead. Following a long-drawn war and in many ways, a spat of proportions that has probably never been seen in any footballing country anywhere across the globe.

How bad was the struggle for the I-League clubs?

Back in December when the I-League clubs met for the first time to protest against the broadcast issues, they had followed it up with a letter of concern to Mr Patel in February. In March, seven I-League clubs including Kolkata giants East Bengal FC and Mohun Bagan FC pulled out of the Super Cup to underline the depth of their demands and proposed a 20-team, unified league which would see all ISL and I-League teams competing against each other, as is the norm in most countries. Under pressure, Mr Patel agreed to meet the consortium, but it was invariably and inexplicably delayed again and again, with the General Elections being cited for his unavailability. Funnily enough, in May, the seven I-League clubs were fined heavily for skipping the Super Cup. Initially, five of them were fined Rs 10 lakh while East Bengal was fined five lakh rupees. Not satisfied with having left the clubs in the dark and slapping them with a huge fine, the AIFF increased the penalty to 27.5 lakhs for each club, possibly influenced by the FSDL in their powerplay against the I-League consortium. The cubs were given a deadline until June 30th to clear their dues. Following this, the clubs threatened to go to court to take action against the AIFF as media reports of ISL being conferred the “top league” status were leaked continuously. Under such circumstances, Mr Patel had no option but to sit down with the I-League clubs in July finally.

So what transpired in the meeting?

Nothing. In honesty, the statement issued post the meeting was a blurred one that had zero clarifications on whether any of the concerns would ever be addressed or not. The statement read: “Mr. Praful Patel, President, All India Football Federation, along with Mr. Kushal Das, General Secretary, AIFF, and Mr. Sunando Dhar, CEO, I-League on Wednesday (July 3rd, 2019) met representatives of 10 Hero I-League clubs to discuss the future of the Leagues, and broad framework of football in India. AIFF as a custodian of Indian Football is concerned about the well-being, and the future of Indian Football including Hero I-League clubs whose contribution to Indian Football has been long-standing. Indian Football’s backbone has been the developmental and promotional activities, including the youth programmes conducted by the Hero I-League clubs. With the advent of the Hero Indian Super League, which is also a league recognised by the Asian Football Confederation, it is imperative to find a viable, and sustainable mechanism to mitigate the concerns about the future of the Hero I-League, and its clubs. AIFF and the Hero I-League Clubs have agreed and will work together to find a solution to all issues including the calendar, scheduling, broadcasting, and the continuation of the Hero I-League for a defined period, till the roadmap is ascertained in a time-bound manner in consultation with FSDL, and the AFC. A lot of other meaningful issues were also simultaneously discussed, and it is hoped that all issues regarding the future of the Hero I-League vis-à-vis the Hero Indian Super League will be resolved shortly. The Hero I-League clubs were happy to have engaged in the discussions which will pave the way for a resolution of the pending issues, and thanked the AIFF President for his understanding, and patient hearing.” The AIFF Executive Committee met again on July 9th, and in it recommendations were made to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to grant the AFC Champions League play-off spot to the ISL and AFC Cup spot to I-League, thus effectively making the latter the second division. They also invited Mr. Dato Windsor John, the General Secretary of the AFC to shed light on the way forward.

So where do we stand now?

Right now, Indian football is witnessing a bloody fight between a few disgruntled fans and clubs and the all-conquering private body that will monopolise the sport unless large-scale action is taken. It seems that under no circumstance will the AIFF ever relent to the I-League clubs, as was obvious by their statement on July 9th stating that the ISL has been the feeder league for the national team and should be credited for India’s performances as an international team over the recent years. If anything, that statement should be an absolutely clear indication that there is little or no scope for the I-League to survive in the long run, and for as long as it does exist it will continue to receive abject step-motherly treatment in one form or the other.

Conclusion: Is the AIFF right in its assessment of the ISL’s impact?

Absolutely not. Since the advent of the ISL, the AIFF has tried to game the FIFA Ranking system to depict a picture of improvement in the national team’s football. There has been the odd victory every now and then, but most of them have been thanks to the sheer brilliance of one man, Sunil Chhetri. Under Stephen Constantine, the AIFF got away with absolutely biased selections, repeatedly choosing players with lower ceiling or poor form from the ISL and not selecting deserving candidates from the I-League. We saw the flaws of such bias in the Asian Cup, where lack of goalscoring forwards and good midfielders cost them a spot in the knockout stages. Despite the win over Thailand, our style and tactics were out of tune with the Asian footballing powers. Under Igor Stimac, the same story has continued. The loss to Curacao in the Kings’ Cup and the damning defeat to Tajikistan (currently ranked 120, 19 places behind India) the other day in the Intercontinental Cup highlight the severe gulf in class between the Blue Tigers and their counterparts. In fact, following the loss, two relevant statistics came up that demonstrate the lack of game-time in the ISL for Indian forwards and defenders alike, and how this continuous façade is interrupting the growth of the players in the country: i. Apart from Chhetri, this is the goals and assists count of the other Indian forwards in the ISL. With less than 20 appearances to their name and almost no noteworthy goal count to speak of, how do they keep being a part of the national team setup? On the other hand, despite scoring nine goals for East Bengal last season, Joby Justin was not a part of either the Asian Cup or the Kings’ Cup squad and was finally chosen for the Intercontinental Cup after he had transferred to ATK, an ISL outfit. How is merit not the base of selection in the national team? ii. Another statistic that went viral after the Tajikistan game was the fact that Indian defenders chosen for the Intercontinental Cup, only Sandesh Jhinghan had over 1,000 minutes of playing experience during the season. The backline looks as penetrable as ever, especially against faster opponents which would explain why they conceded four goals in the second half against Tajikistan. No wonder Anas Edathodika had to be brought back from retirement. The lack of planning and preparation is appalling and is in such sharp contrast to Mr. Patel’s vision of Indian competing in a World Cup in 2026.

Author’s take

Facts do not lie and facts say that Indian football team’s ranking had gone down to 173 in March 2015 because the team had played only one game in the 12 months preceding it. This was when the ISL had already begun. Facts also say that until season 5, the ISL did not even stop during an international break, which begs the question as to how and when did it ever prioritize the national team over itself? At the end of the day, no one can deny that ISL has injected glamour and might have some long-term benefits. However, five years is too short a term to measure its impact, if any. Moreover, the relentless propaganda( through the Media and paid Twitter bots) of it developing players for the national team, giving them better opportunities and thus justifying its need to be the top-tier league is a false one. It was, and still is feasible to make a 20-team unified league with promotion and relegation, with the Indian football calendar looking something like this: • Durand Cup/IFA Shield/State Leagues like the Calcutta Football league or the Goa Pro League etc.( in July/August) • The Unified League(September-April) • Super Cup( April/May) • Rovers Cup(May/June) However, as things stand, such a calendar remains a dream for Indian football fans. It is most likely that the FSDL will have their way if they have not had it already and that the bubble around which the AIFF has wrapped itself is most likely to stay unscathed for a long, long while.
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