The idea of a unified league maybe utopian but in the uneven playing field playing field that is Indian football its implementation will bring many challenges and much potential for collateral damage…

The idea The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) wants a delegation comprising its officials and from FIFA to visit India in August-September this year to step in and streamline the ambiguent football structure currently prevailing in the country.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) currently runs both the I-League while the Indian Super League (ISL) is operated side-by-side by IMG-Reliance under the umbrella of the Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) without any concrete decision on the structure of football in the country. At present, the I-League remains the country’s premier league, with the winners eligible to take part in the AFC Champions League qualifiers playoff. But, the ISL has also got official recognition with the champions being granted an AFC Cup slot.

The calendar of Indian domestic football has been divided into two separate leagues ever since the inception of the ISL. The league finally earned recognition under the aegis of the AFC, AIFF as well as FIFA. Although both the I-League and the ISL will be held parallelly this year, the AFC had stated that a long-term roadmap for Indian football needs to be agreed upon latest by October.

“The AIFF’s decision to run the I-League and ISL concurrently is a purely stopgap arrangement. But, the AFC can’t allow this arrangement to run for long. This is why they have decided to take a fresh initiative to end the logjam as soon as possible. The AFC has its reservations about recognising and continuing with two leagues in a country. There has to be only one league which will be officially recognised by the AFC and it may happen next season itself,” claimed a source speaking to the Times of India.

“The AFC, in consultation with FIFA and the local stakeholders, will be ready with its suggestions about Indian football’s roadmap during the U-17 World Cup. It will then be forwarded to THE AIFF executive committee for taking a final call.”

Also read AIFF approve demands of I-league clubs to challenge the glitz of ISL

The reigning champions izawl FC could be relegated to the second tier

Following those meetings, the AFC wants to hold further discussions or workshops at six U-17 World Cup venues during the competition that will be held in India from October 6-28.

In May 2016, the AIFF had rolled out a proposal for a unified league pyramid with 10 teams in the top tier. Following rounds of futile discussions thereafter, the AFC’s help was sought which led to the meeting in Kuala Lumpur where it was said that a plan would be in place after the colts’ World Cup.

The concept of the unified league is alluring but it might hamper the overall growth of football in the nation. There has been a major imbalance of footballing hotbeds within the domestic boundaries. For instance, two pivots of football in India, Kolkata and Goa, host as many as two dozen clubs playing in various leagues. They boast ample amount of talent on their rosters. But, in North India, football only has a fledgling presence mostly around the capital. 

One of the other constraints to the idea of a unified league is the disparity in the financial resources of the clubs. The ISL clubs are backed by sponsors and shareholders. On the other hand, I-League clubs like Aizawl FC are managed by small-time owners and supporters. It goes without saying that in the transfer market, the minnows from Mizoram will not be able to lure big name players with their money.

Aizwal’s I-league triumph last season reminded all of Leicester City’s Premier League conquest but the reality is that the reigning Indian champions still cannot compete with the financial muscle of the ISL clubs.

Also read Exclusive: Retained list for ISL clubs revealed!

The ISL clubs can attract big name stars

When faced with the insurmountable financial strength of the ISL clubs, it will only be a matter of time before a club like Aizawl gets relegated to the lower echelons of Indian football. It will be tough to imagine a club who won the league last season languishing in the lower divisions of the league. But, with the roadmap currently being proposed by the AIFF, this fear is not unfounded.

According to reports, there will be as many as 36 teams playing in two divisions. If each franchise hires, let’s say, 10 senior Indian players, then with 18 teams in the top division, it would make it 180 players. Similarly, if each of the 18 clubs in the lower division buy about 20 Indian players, about 360 players will be recruited. So, about 460 Indian players will get employed and play competitive football for about five-six months. But the critical question at this juncture would be – where are these 460-500 good Indian players who have had prior experience of playing football at the top level in India?

Due to the nascent football grassroots programmes, there are very few academies which regularly churn out talent, ready to compete at the top level. With the frequent shutting down of clubs, this situation has worsened further. Consequently, with due respect to the ISL clubs, they will make use of their better infrastructure and produce players who will rise through the ranks and become a part of the senior team. Coupled with their financial mettle, ISL franchises will have all the power to control player transfers. This will likely spell doom for most I-League clubs except for the big two from Kolkata.

However, If implemented efficiently, the structure might ensure a good quality young prospects for the national team. The structure would mean there will be a long time span of football in the nation. But to achieve its full potential, there should be a team from every state and union territory in order achieve equal development of football in every corner of the country.

As the India captain Sunil Chhetri stated, “Imagine how good it will be if there are 20 teams in the main league and 20 more wanting to come in. It’ll be a pan-India league then. Why do we only get players from the Northeast or Goa or Kerala? Why don’t we have superstars from, say, Madhya Pradesh? There must be talent there. Ideally, I would want many more teams and a bigger league.” 

An excellent example here is that of cricket’s premier domestic tournament the Ranji Trophy. The tournament has been the ideal platform for players to showcase their ammunition to the country and a steady conveyor belt of mature talent for the national team. The Ranji Trophy continues to be the breeding ground of many a great Indian cricketers. Its the kind of structure the AIFF must seek to emulate as it looks to grow the beautiful game in the country.