Millennium Post

Soccer Twirl

Today, Indian football is going through a revamp. There are ideas flurrying, concepts emerging and meanwhile, All India Football Federation (AIFF) is trying to give a concrete structure to these flying designs.

Two years ago, amidst Indian football’s struggle for identity, emerged the Indian Super League (ISL). With itself, the ISL brought glamour, money and interest, all back into the game. The first season of the ISL saw people flocking to the stadiums to support their respective teams and see the foreign players they had watched only on TV.

As ISL generated interest back into the game of football amongst Indian consumers, it disrupted the existential football setup of India. The players were now playing under three different coaches in a single calendar year –  ISL club coach, I-League club coach and national coach — and shuffling between their duties for their clubs and the country.

It brought up serious issues for the players and the organisation. For example, even currently, ISL club Mumbai City FC is missing their star player and Indian national team captain Sunil Chhetri because he is busy with Bengaluru FC of I-League in the AFC Cup.

AIFF chief Praful Patel even went on to say, “ISL is a disruption in Indian football and it is because of this disruption that we are looking for solutions.” Experts have even gone on to say that ISL is not a league but just a tournament that comes in the Indian football scenario for three months in a year. On the other hand, FIFA doesn’t allow the running of two parallel leagues in a country and has banned Kenya and Indonesia for the same.

Thus, AIFF proposed a three-tier system where ISL would be the top tier, I-League would be relegated to second division and if an I-League club wishes to play in the top-tier, it has to pay a certain amount of money. Though Subrata Dutta, Vice President AIFF, insisted that “everything is still on the decision stage and the meetings with stakeholders are going on,” the roadmap paved way to the great debate regarding the fairness, sustainability and viability of the proposition.

“I don’t see a problem with the system. Moreover, it’s still a proposition and AIFF will give it go ahead only after majority consensus,” said Mandar Tamhane, Chief Technical Officer of Bengaluru FC. 

“Definitely, if you see from an individual club’s perspective, the proposal may not be good but it definitely has a lot of positives. If the proposal is implemented, it will allow AIFF to plan the calendar year accordingly, for both the leagues and the national team. 

Also, the players won’t have to shuffle and one player will play for only one club, which along with tackling the shuffling issues brings in more opportunities and employment for the various footballers. So, it sure looks good though, it will be worked upon still,” he added.

Contrary to Tamhane’s viewpoint, Unni Paravannur, owner of popular news portal Football News India, believes that avoiding the I-League clubs can have serious repercussions. “Indian football needs professional revamp and AIFF needs to take all football stakeholders in confidence. 

It’s not wise to avoid the I-League clubs, which have kept football alive in the country for so many years. The I-League clubs, especially in Kolkata, North East and Goa, have been there for a long time and have interacted with the football enthusiasts in such a manner that they’ve created a strong fan base and just a two-year-old club cannot break that connection.” 

A Mohun Bagan fan says, “These I-League clubs, Mohun Bagan for me, have a connection with us football fans from the grassroot level. They’ve been amongst us and we have an emotional attachment with them. Just an Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) cannot emerge and replace that.”

Atletico de Kolkata, the Kolkata franchise of ISL, saw their lowest ever attendance of 10,973 in their first home game against Chennaiyin FC in ISL 3. For the past two ISL seasons, Kolkata saw an average of around 55,000 crowd for their home games and even considering the fact that their current home, Rabindra Sarobar Stadium has a lower capacity, such a steep fall was definitely shocking. 

“It’s difficult to pinpoint a reason for the drastic fall in attendance but it was definitely surprising. May be that it was the first game or the incessant rain over there, but considering Kolkata, it was surprising to see such a low crowd count,” said Tamhane.

On the other hand, Subrata Dutta said, “It happened because of it being their first game. In their new stadium, they allowed a capacity of only 10,000 out of which 8,000 were complimentary tickets while 2,000 public.”

Interestingly, if the allowed capacity was 10,000, how was the turnout almost a 1,000 more than that? But Dutta maintained, “you’ll see better organisation and preparation next time.”

Prior to the onset of ISL 3, Sanjiv Goenka and Saurav Ganguly, co-owners of ATK, criticised Mohun Bagan and East Bengal and said that there will only one team from Kolkata in the top division and that would be ATK. 

They also went on to say that even if Bagan and East Bengal fans boycott ATK matches, their support won’t suffer. So, there’s a popular belief that these words haven’t gone down well with the ardent fans of Kolkata’s football giants.

Paravannur said, “The owners of ATK made some irresponsible statements, probably being unaware of the football culture in Kolkata. 

There’s a lot of passion for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal and even though these clubs are unprofessional and do not have a proper structure in place, they enjoy unconditional support from their fans and you never know what fan clubs scheme and decide amongst themselves.”

The same was validated by football enthusiast and East Bengal supporter Sayan Chatterjee, “ATK somehow doesn’t represent the raw and indigenous brand of Bengal football. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have existed since the colonial times and the kind of emotional attachment we have to the clubs, the historical and cultural significance that they have are things that ATK lacks. 

Most Kolkata football lovers are not attracted to glamour and corporate money but to heritage and character.”

The biggest question that arises with the whole issue is, what’s the solution to it? How can one arrive to a resolution where both the ISL and I-League clubs can survive harmoniously? Tamhane firmly says that there’s no such solution. “It’s extremely tough to have a harmonious solution. 

You can never really come up with a system that can keep everyone happy. Though, the system of relegation and promotion is of utmost importance. There has to be a system where performance is the judge for top division qualification and not only money,” he said.

Stamping upon the same, Paravannur said, “Like AIFF has proposed if there is no relegation-promotion, mediocre and bad clubs can get away with anything knowing that they’ll anyway be a part of the top-tier. Also, why would any club want to be in the lower division knowing they’ll never be able to up the ante.

Moreover, the investment and sponsorship that AIFF has promised they’ll get for the second division will also be hit because no one would want to invest in a club that’s always going to be down the order.”

Paravannur added that instead of relegating the I-League clubs, which would ensure their already faulty system becoming worse, they should be included in the top-tier and be forced to sort out their issues. At this point of time, an ideal solution seems to be the inclusion of top I-League clubs along with the ISL clubs into a single league and increase the span of the league.

Pravannur said, “Ideally 10-12 teams should be made to compete in a single league and indulge with fans to spring the excitement for a longer format.” Speaking on the idea of more teams, Tamhane said, “It depends on AIFF and their commercial partners. A longer league means more matches and hence, the costs increase too which may or may not be sustainable. That is for AIFF to see and figure out.”

Subrata Dutta, on the same, said, “This is actually a fine solution and this is exactly what we’re working towards. About the finances, one should leave it to the financial management team to sort out.”

The Indian Super League has surely brought the crowd and madness back into the Indian football scenario. It has also taken football to cities forgotten, probably that is why we see the crazy support for Kerala Blasters FC because their football is finally seeing the light of the day. But on the other hand, the I-League and its clubs are approved by Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and it’s because of them and their selfless effort towards the game that it stays alive in the country.

The world scenario has time and again proved that football is nothing without the passion of the fans and it is them that the system has to justify. And as Subrata Dutta mentioned, Gianni Infantino, FIFA President, on his visit to India, said he has full faith in Praful Patel that he will make an ideal marriage of legacy and commercialisation. Probably that’s the hope one 
can cling on to.
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