The anointment of two separate winners in the same league competition has raised many eyebrows.

Despite being conferred as the topmost football league in the country, the ISL produces a unique paradox. Reputed competitions of the sport across the world place significant importance on the league stages of the tournament over the playoffs.

Many are of the opinion that rewarding a team on the basis of the former criteria is a true recognition of the consistency that they displayed over the course of a long, stretched out campaign. Even the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) concurs with this notion, considering that the table-topper of the ISL is provided a direct qualification to the group stages of the AFC Champions League.

However, there is the other side to this debate as well, which advocates the necessity of the much-anticipated playoff stage in a league as newfound as the ISL. To argue over both these school of thoughts, we brought on board Punit Tripathi and Tarkesh Jha from Khel Now Football to express their viewpoints over the issues.

Our correspondents shared their main arguments to bring a counter-narrative that would make this piece more interesting for our readers. Without further ado, let us get into the crux of the matter.

Pro-Playoffs: Tarkesh Jha

Idealism isn’t synonymous to Indian football. Hence, formulating an outlook through that lens to perceive the sport in the country is arguably not too wise. Nowhere else one witnesses two leagues combating tooth and nail to claim the top-tier status in a nation. Neither does a closed competition sans any fluidity for clubs to jump higher or be demoted on the basis of merit portray any flawlessness.

Hence, attempting hard to somehow instill the model league format by scrapping the playoffs in the Hero ISL is inadvisable for now. Some of the most iconic matches in every campaign emerge from contests between teams from the bottom half of the table. These are the clubs that battle vigorously to sustain and hold on to their place in the league. Such a design keeps a fan glued to the ISL until the last day even as there’s no semi-final or final to look forward to.

Right now, there are clubs like Hyderabad FC (previously FC Pune City), Odisha FC (previously Delhi Dynamos FC), NorthEast United FC and Kerala Blasters FC who continue to retain their spots in the ISL despite finishing at positions that would have seen them being displaced to a lower-tier otherwise. Antagonistically, the emergence of a powerful triangle comprising Bengaluru FC, FC Goa and ATK and their continued dominance is quite detrimental to the fate of Indian football.

So, when the ISL is inevitably in the process of being segregated in the pools of top and bottom performers, what will inspire a fan to tune into the league in the final few weeks of the tournament? The playoff; which is a system that allows a team like Chennaiyin FC to spark a miraculous turnaround under Owen Coyle to finish as the runners-up after languishing very low for the initial few months.

If the ISL had opted to do away with the semifinals format, the Marina Machans would have probably sufficed with a practically non-beneficial mid-table finish. Instead, they hammered league-winners FC Goa to a 4-1 defeat in the first-leg of the semifinals and made their way into the ISL final against all odds.

Chennaiyin FC made a comeback in the second part of of the ISL

The table-toppers are anyways incentivized with the best continental berth, so it’s a way of recognizing that gradually moving towards a league-only approach without the knockouts could be a possibility in the coming times. However, it is important to persist with it for the time being in order to prevent the league from becoming way too predictable due to the vast disparity of quality between a few sides.

The implementation of promotion-relegation and a unified league will be a reality from the 2024-25 season.  That will be a decisive move towards making the functioning of the ISL more meritorious. Until then, the administration should sustain the interest that the ISL has attracted so far. Scrapping the knockouts will render the second-fourth semi-final spots meaningless to an extent, squeezing out the sheer exhilaration that kept the likes of Chennaiyin FC, Mumbai City FC, Odisha FC and even Jamshedpur FC on their toes until the last week of the league stage of the 2019-20 season.

Anti-Playoffs: Punit Tripathi

Most of the footballing world runs on consistency and knowing that if you lose a home/away game, you’ve a chance to take revenge on that specific opponent sometime later that season. If Gokulam Kerala were playing Mohun Bagan five points off the top, it’d be a match worth watching. Gokulam would be giving their all, managers would be basking in the spotlight, and players would be running till the last drop of sweat would fall off their body.

If one team scored in the last quarter, imagine the rush of blood! Imagine the players in the box, giving it their all for every header and shooting pile-divers! That’s the thrill football provides you. The team at the top doesn’t rest its top stars, because it doesn’t want to let go off the trophy.

Next scenario – Gokulam knows that even if they don’t win this, they have a chance to qualify for the top four and the playoffs to win the trophy. And the team at the top, in this case Bagan, rests all its stars to give them enough rest before the league phase is over, making the game boring.

The ISL is one of the very few ‘national’ leagues globally to have a playoff system after the league phase is over.
While not having promotion/relegation is another problem, we won’t cover that under the ambit of this article. Globally, leagues have been the flavor of countries with La Liga, Premier League and Bundesliga attracting over a million fans almost every weekend.

Here’s a case in point. During the tail end of the 2018 season, table-toppers Bengaluru FC and FC Pune City were facing each other. Miku equalized in the 75th minute to Sarthak Golui’s 21st minute opener. Both teams saw the game end without much fuss, and some even rested key players like Erik Paartalu.

Imagine the same game had that been the final game of the season with the top two playing in league format! Removing playoffs would mean the top four teams push for the trophy right till the very end and football will be played to its top potency right from the first whistle.

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FC Goa, the league topper in the 2019-20 ISL season, received the slot for the Asian Champions League group-stages and ATK Mohun Bagan, the winner of the coveted ISL trophy got the AFC Cup play-off slot. Is this ISL’s way of saying – our trophy isn’t as valuable as consistency and points on the league table?

If that’s the case, the next season in the ISL should be (and very invitingly) the cul-de-sac on playoffs asking AFC to allot the third slot either to the I-league winner (if it continues to be a parallel league) or hand it to the third team on the table.

What do you think? Message or comment your opinion on why the ISL should or shouldn’t continue the playoffs in the near future!

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