Return of clubs, licensing, prize pool - The good, bad and ugly of promotion from I-League to ISL
Promotion from I-League to ISL will be playing out from 2023-24. Most stakeholders agree this is a great step for Indian football, but some grey areas remain for the clubs.
Ending years of speculation about when teams can start moving between the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League, the two topmost tiers of club football in the country, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has announced that the winners of the upcoming I-League season will be promoted to the ISL in 2023/24.
This development has laid to rest the anxieties of many I-League clubs and Indian football fans, but the development comes with its own sets of boons and grey areas.
More competitive league football
Ever since the I-League got relegated to the status of being the country's second-division, the owners and players alike experiences a huge drop in interest and lack in motivation. They had nothing to play for anymore. This changed only after the announcement which made the closed-league system to an open one.
Real Kashmir head coach Mehrajuddin Wadoo told The Bridge, "I think it's a great decision for the betterment of Indian football. I-league will be more competitive as the teams will have something to look forward to. Moreover, if relegation is implemented in the ISL then their teams will also push to finish in the top."
Rajasthan United FC owner Kamal Saroha was also delighted to hear the news, saying that football's beauty lies in its unpredictability.
"You can amass the best players in the world, spend a lot of money, but at the end of the day, they will have to play on the same pitch as their opponents. Promotion and relegation ensures this ethos of the sport stays alive, by giving performance precedence over money. If a small team can win the lower league and qualify to play in the higher league, then they must be given that opportunity," he said.
Clubs coming back into the national circuit
Though not a direct consequence to be seen from the first season itself, making the league structure of Indian football more open will have a huge benefit in the long run - the return of heritage clubs who have turned their backs on the national league structure.
In 2016, Goa-based club Dempo SC had pulled out of the I-League 2017-18 season in protest against the then-imminent decision to make the ISL the country's first division. Moreover, the absence of the prospect of getting promoted made it easier for the club officials to take the step.
This Monday, Dempo president Shrinivas Dempo told The Navhind Times that the team is looking to come back into the national league circuit. "The discussions are being made at the club and we are considering a move back to the national platform. It's a matter of time we are there now," the official told the Goa-based daily.
Moreover, the president met with AIFF Secretary General Shaji Prabhakaran last week to discuss their participation in the I-League Second Division this year.
This surely suggests that after implementing the prospect of promotion from the second division to the first division, bona fide clubs like Dempo, who were once let down by the system, will get the confidence to return to the fold the national league system.
"Now we will see more new clubs coming into the picture as the road map is set and they know that if they perform and have a structured set up they can also represent in the top tier of the country, gaining a chance to represent India at the Asian stage," Dipak Singh of BunkerHill, the investors of Mohammedan SC, said.
"In a country with 1.3 billion people having only 11 teams and 385 players, out of which 66 players are foreigners, playing in the top tier is not fair. To grow Indian football we need more teams so that we eventually have long leagues like those in Europe,"
Licensing criteria - a possible hindrance?
While most agree that there is no negative to this development, a few grey areas remain.
One thing that can prove to be a hindrance to the I-League clubs can be the Premier 1 licensing criteria. According to the Indian Club Licensing Regulations (2021 edition), the ICLS Premier 1 License "grants admission to play in the AFC club competitions, Indian Super League and other AIFF-recognised cup tournaments."
On the other hand, the ICLS Premier 2 License "grants admission to play in the AFC Cup, I-League and other AIFF-recognised cup tournaments." Naturally, it can be assumed that the I-League club which will get promoted will have to fulfil the criteria of the Premier 1 license.
This criteria is divided into five categories, which are:
- Sporting criteria
- Infrastructure criteria
- Personnel & Administrative criteria
- Legal criteria
- Financial criteria
Many clubs in both the leagues have failed to attain their respective licenses, but have been granted exemptions. If I-League clubs are struggling to fulfil the criteria of the Premier 2 license, one can assume that they would encounter some hurdles in their way to fulfil the Premier 1 license criteria, despite having earned the right to enter the first division based on 'sporting merit'.
The Bridge understands that all I-League clubs have been exempted from enforcing the license regulation this year due to reasons pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dipak Singh of Mohammedan believes that the Premier 1 licensing won't be that much of a problem. "Premier 2 is just a watered down version of Premier 1, there's not much difference. It shouldn't be that a club doesn't have anything and wants to play ISL," Singh said.
While some clubs are still unsure of what this Premier 1 license will entail, Sudeva Delhi president Anuj Gupta believes it'll ultimately boil down to the infrastructure of the states.
"The compliances is mostly lacking in I-League is because states like Punjab and Rajasthan will have to do with whatever they have. While financial compliances will be higher, I feel the intent should be more important. Why not give one year exemption to the newly promoted club? The issue arises when they are playing at the Asian level, because until then we are playing inside the country," he told The Bridge.
No share from the central pool
The other question on which there is yet to be a consensus among the I-League clubs is on the ISL prize pool.
Every ISL team pays a franchise fee at the beginning of a new season, the collection of which is called the 'Central pool revenue'. From this, each club gets a share depending on a number of factors.
Going by this logic, the new entrant from the I-League will not be receiving a slice of the pie since they won't be entering by paying the franchise fee, which they would have had to pay unless they had been promoted on 'sporting merit'.
"In the first year, the new club won't be getting a share, but the next year onwards they will get a share according to various factors, as the roadmap says," Dipak Singh said. The BunkerHill director added that he believes that not getting a share in the first year won't be a problem at all.
Sudeva's Anuj Gupta had some interesting insights to add, explaining that the 'franchise fee' model could soon be a thing of the past.
"When both promotion and relegation will work simultaneously in ISL, there will be no need for the franchise fee and the central pool will then be shared amongst everyone," he said.
The verdict is that all-in-all, this move by the federation has been long time coming and most certainly is a welcome one. It will make the footballing ecosystem more entertaining, more competitive, and better in all aspects.