Beneath the fanfare and recent success Indian football is a deeply polarised space, split down the middle in a battle between the traditionalists and the modernists.
There is a poignant saying in Hindi which reads ‘Jo dikhta hai woh bikta hai’ (The most visible sells best). In that respect at least, these are good times for Indian football. The country has just hosted and participated in its first major FIFA event, the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the national team recently broke into the top 100 in the FIFA rankings and has qualified for the top continental competition the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 2011. Also, a bumper, elongated season of the cash-rich Indian Super League (ISL) lies ahead. Therefore, it is right to say that football in the country probably has more resonance with the masses than it has arguably ever had before.
Indeed, speaking just a day before the Final of the recently concluded junior World Cup, FIFA President Gianni Infantino asserted that India had arrived as a ‘football continent.’ However, the question remains, as to whether the country can sustain its newfound football momentum? And it is the answer to this question that will likely define the true legacy of events such as October’s tournament.
Do not be fooled by the fanfare on the surface. For beneath it, Indian football is as divided a house as can be. Bengaluru FC’s coming in 2013 was the catalyst for a flurry of footballing activity south of the Vindhyas, but those gains, in what was previously unchartered territory, have been rapidly offset by the closure of scores of clubs on the west coast. The quick disappearance of the likes of Pune FC and Bharat FC were already body blows to the sport in Maharashtra and the recent closure of DSK Shivajians and Mumbai FC have acted as the final nails in the coffin for Maharashtra football, obliterating the state from the nation’s football map.
Bengaluru FC’s move to the ISL is deeply damaging to the idea of the I-League being Indian football’s flagship competition
But, perhaps nowhere are the divisions in Indian football more starkly reflected than in the state of affairs in the old powerhouse of Goa. Once a bastion of the national game and a conveyer belt of India regulars, today, the state’s football is in sorry disarray. Three of the country’s biggest clubs, Dempo Sports Club, Sporting Clube de Goa and Salgaocar FC, between them multiple-time winners of the national league, withdrew from the last edition of the country’s top flight, the I-League, stating unanimously that they did not agree with the All India Football Federation (AIFF’s) proposed roadmap for Indian football.
Nearly two years on from the simultaneous walkout, there is no sign of their imminent return to the national football fold. What’s more the regional governing body, the Goa Football Association and the AIFF have been at loggerheads for many years now and the former does not have a representative in the AIFF’s Executive Committee, its top decision-making apparatus. Indeed, save for Churchill Brothers, who themselves were in forced exile until late last year, Goa too would have no representative in the I-League.
Of course, these clubs, like those before them had their reasons for shutting down. At least in the cases of Pune and Mumbai FC, to name but two, they were run by highly respected corporate entities in the Piramal Group and Essar Group respectively. However, while they may have been most well-intentioned, the fact remains, that with hardly any sustainable revenue streams or aid from the national body, for their owners, these clubs were essentially loss-making, basically surviving in the red from season to season.
Indian Super League 2017: The journey begins!
To that extent, their eventual closure should not have come as much surprise. But, it has provided a glimpse into the challenges that lay ahead
Be that as it may, the fight for the future of Indian football is in essence, bipolar. It is one in between the harbingers of the prestige of the legacy clubs such as stalwarts Mohun Bagan and East Bengal and the champions of the modernist ISL. Both have their staunch backers and equally vociferous detractors, with each trying to pull the game in a different direction, albeit with the same stated aim. Caught in the middle is the AIFF, between a rock it must befriend and the hard place it can’t abandon.
So, where do we go from here? Well, there are several possibilities and each one of which merits examination. First, there is the parallel running of both the ISL and the I-League. It is a model set to be experimented with starting this season. But, with both leagues fighting for the same limited audience, quarrels are already surfacing about which of the two gets top billing and which becomes the second choice.
With ISL now in a longer format, it will be interesting to see how aged-stars make it through the tournament
More importantly, there is also the question of whether there are enough takers to sustain a 3-tier league pyramid (including I-League 2nd Division). The recent interest in taking up the vacant I-League spots from last season would suggest that there are at least enough suitors. However, whether there are enough top-level professionals to fill 30 teams across three leagues is a different matter for another time. At any rate, we will reserve judgement on the scenario until its first instalment has played out.
Alternatively, there is the promised land of a unified league, with 15-20 teams from both leagues under one umbrella, ostensibly that of the ISL. It is well-known that the Asian Football Confederation has been pushing its constituent the AIFF to implement this structure. However, it is easier said than done given its many cynics. One of the contentions against the idea is that the leagues are too far apart in terms of what they represent.
On one hand, there is the I-League with its sparse crowds, clubs being serial defaulters on account of unpaid player salaries, the mysterious African imports you’ve never heard of and players being signed and released on the fly. In stark contrast is the ISL, with money aplenty, the razzmatazz of Live TV coverage and its ability to attract global superstars such as Diego Forlan, albeit well past their sell-by date.
Also, we haven’t mentioned the ISL clubs’ professional approach to player development with their fitness coaches, sports scientists and the lot. With such different ideas and ways of functioning, or at least perceptions, it is easy to see why many believe clubs from the two leagues cannot co-exist.
For all its positives, the ISL, too, has its cons that its detractors will readily point out. For one, it is and will for the foreseeable future remain a privately-owned league and thus, the question of how and whether a private league, not directly under the purview of the AIFF can become the country’s top league, is a complex one. Moreover, the ISL clubs, nascent as they are, are still putting together their grassroots development programs and until last year at least were heavily reliant on their I-League counterparts for Indian talent.
The I-league is set to start on the 25th November without any clarity on its schedule, telecast and coverage
Moreover, with no indigenous fanbase to speak off, fans of I-League clubs often doubled up as fans of their local ISL team, at least until now. It is no secret that clubs from the two leagues do not see eye-to-eye. Therefore, while the ISL has done much good in its short existence, it will also be credited for being the hand that drove a wedge between the already mistrusting bedfellows in Indian football, whether rightly or wrongly.
The patrons of the game and indeed those at the AIFF will tell you that the I-League is still the country’s premier league. But, in reality, that assertion is nothing if not tongue-in-cheek. For, if it were true, then as the flag-bearers of Indian football, with their continental success, BFC’s departure to the ISL before the start of the new season should have set the alarm bells ringing. Clearly, the Blues management know something about the direction in which the country’s football is heading, that most people don’t.
There is, of course, the small matter of the national team, the upswing in whose fortunes has coincided perfectly with the lead up to the World Cup. But, just as it looked like at least the national camp was a proverbial bed of roses, has surfaced the news that a section of senior players in the team are pushing for the ouster of incumbent manager Stephen Constantine. Indeed, there is no doubt that the federation’s recent strategy with the national team has been heavily based on the numbers game of the FIFA rankings.
However, only time will tell whether this narrow approach benefits the Blue Tigers in the long term, especially with regard to the stated goal of qualification for the senior World Cup of 2026.
It would not be far-fetched to say that Indian football wishes to be where Indian cricket is at this time and superficial comparisons are readily made at every given opportunity. But, there are some similarities and yet key differences between the two. It is now over 34 years to the day of the historic 1983 World Cup final win, inarguably the single biggest moment that put Indian cricket on the map. While the U-17 extravaganza was a huge success, football still awaits its own 1983 moment.
It does though have its own poster boys like cricket has had over generations and these will most definitely aid its growth. Another significant period of the transformation of the country’s cricket was the era of commercialization through the mid-1990s. This was when the first broadcast rights deal was agreed between the Board of Control for Cricket in India and what was then ESPN Star Sports. On the flip side, we must not forget, that the AIFF had not engaged a full-time broadcaster for national team games, until very recently.
But, quite aside from all these factors, perhaps Indian cricket’s biggest achievement has been to ensure the socio-economic security of not just its elite international stars, but also that of the rank and file First-Class player, who play not a single game for the country. In this context, with the huge gulf in player wages between the I-League and the ISL, football has a big battle to fight.
After the very successful hosting of the U-17 World Cup, the country is now a front-runner to conduct the U-20 event in two years’ time. But, much beyond the hosting of these mega events, the real test lies in building on the foundation, that the euphoria generated by them has provided. It is clear that if India is to sustain its football momentum and grow as the ‘football continent.’ many are today seeing her as, progress off the pitch, will be as important as that on it. In light of the above, it is the former that will likely prove Indian football’s biggest challenge.