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'ISL clubs are not yet ready for relegation,' says Raj Athwal

Raj Athwal, president of Odisha FC, and Rohan Sharma, the Owner of Odisha FC, said bankrolling clubs in the ISL are not ready for relegation yet.

ISL clubs are not yet ready for relegation, says Raj Athwal

Odisha FC owner Rohan Sharma and club's president Raj Athwal at an event. (Photo credit: Odisha FC)


Aswathy Santhosh

Updated: 9 April 2024 7:50 AM GMT

The landscape of Indian football is in the midst of a profound transformation, symbolised by Punjab FC's promotion to the Indian Super League (ISL) last season, followed by Mohammedan Sporting's I-League winning show this year.

This marked a shift in Indian football's trajectory, as the Black Panthers are prepared to enter the ISL on merit, earning a promotion from the second tier of Indian club football.

Looking forward, the roadmap for Indian football charts a course for the introduction of relegation starting from the 2024-25 season, heralding a new era for the sport in the country.

With promotion and relegation entering the fray, the ISL finds itself at a crossroads.

Raj Athwal, the president of Odisha FC, expressed optimism with the arrival of two new clubs in the ISL.

"Firstly, I think we need more numbers in the league," Athwal told The Bridge.

"What the league has done right, is extending the league. I believe that in the upcoming season, we'll see cup competitions distributed across the schedule rather than being condensed into a single month. This adjustment, aligning more closely with the format of European leagues, holds significant importance," stated Athwal.

The reality of relegation

While promotion has been allowed in the ISL, relegation remains a contentious issue in the ISL.

"My only concern is whether bankrolling clubs in the ISL are ready for relegation," asked Athwal.

"The ISL holds significant allure, while the I-League often lacks deserved publicity. The situation mirrors that of the Premier League and the Championship, where the ultimate goal is to reach the top tier for potential riches and exposure," said Athwal.

He did not shy away from expressing his irritation with relegation.

"I am hesitant to introduce relegation at this time. Instead, the authorities and stakeholders should come together and find a balanced salary cap in a way that it'll help the newly promoted clubs navigate through the transition smoothly and maintain the competitiveness," he said.

Athwal also backed his thoughts with a few questions that might impact the future of the clubs.

"The crucial question regarding relegation is whether team owners will accept it. If a team faces relegation, will it significantly impact their finances and revenue streams? And will this setback be enough to dissuade them from continuing their investment? These questions are pivotal, as they could potentially lead to the folding of certain clubs," he said.

Rohan Sharma, the owner of Odisha FC, echoed Athwal's sentiments, drawing parallels with the feelings of other club owners.

"Many team owners, including myself, would likely not welcome relegation. The current situation is already challenging for most I-League teams, which is regrettable. I believe the federation should prioritize the sustainability of the I-League. I'll always say that the I-League is important for the growth of the ISL. We need them to survive," Rohan emphasised.


"I was a bit nervous when promotion was first discussed," Rohan admitted reflecting on the initial struggles of clubs like East Bengal.

He acknowledged the necessity of promotion and relegation in principle but pointed out the disparity in financial rewards between leagues, citing the substantial payouts and TV rights in other global leagues compared to the relatively smaller scale in the ISL.

"There's a significant financial disparity between moving from the Championship to the Premier League compared to the ISL. The television rights revenue is considerably higher elsewhere. Teams in the ISL don't receive the same financial support that teams in other leagues do. Overall, I think the league management has done a commendable job this year, especially considering the support some teams have received," he said.

Athwal also highlighted the inevitable challenges the clubs face upon entry.

"Now, any club transitioning from the I-League would likely face challenges in ISL. The initial years are typically tough for promoted teams. Punjab has had a remarkable season, but initially, their results suggested they were still adjusting to the league," he said.

Athwal also underlined the financial struggle of new entrants in the premier division.

"Despite restrictions, clubs will continue spending and seeking revenue. It's a pattern seen globally; newly promoted clubs often struggle in their first year due to financial constraints. I'd venture to say that the spending in the I-League is a fraction of what's seen in the Super League, possibly because of financial limitations or because less investment is needed for promotion. Nonetheless, there remains a substantial gap in resources. So when do the federation intervene to ensure clubs' sustainability?," Athwal signed off.

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