The descending story of Indian football and how the game carries a fake illusion that the advent of ISL has helped Indian players financially.

In the middle of 2015, when Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Sunil Chhetri became household names breaking the 1cr barrier at India’s first ever IPL-style football ISL auction in Mumbai, Far east, two men in Kolkata must have had a wry smile on their faces as they caught the action on TV. Just a couple of years before the much-hyped auction, United Sports Club (then Prayag United Sports Club) officials, Nabab Bhattacharya and Alokesh Kundu were the most sought-after men in Indian football with players drooling at the very sight of their numbers ringing on their cell phones.

Those were good times for the Men in Purple as United Sports Club were fondly called. Thanks to a huge sponsorship deal signed with the Prayag Group, Bhattacharya, began to offer astronomical sums of money to Indian players- something unheard of before. During the first year of their sponsorship in 2012, Subrata Paul and Gourmangi Singh were both reportedly offered a sum in excess of 1cr a season while Ranti Martins, who had just won the I-League with Dempo that year, was lured to the maidans of Kolkata with a whopping 1.6cr-a year deal. They also signed one of the first World Cup players to ply his trade in India, Costa Rican striker Carlos Hernandez, in excess of 1cr.

Bhattacharya, meanwhile, didn’t stop there. He went a step further, luring Lester Fernandez who had just resurrected his career with a brilliant season at Pune FC, for an Indian transfer fee record of 20 lacs, in addition to the 50 lacs that he was paid that year. Slowly, some of the biggest names in Indian football made a beeline to United SC where offers seemed to have been overflowing and while United Sports Club was literally drowning in cash, other clubs were not too far behind.

Subrata Paul, Ranti Martins and Carlos Hernandez had bumper deals at Prayag United/United Sports Club

The players who started regularly at Dempo, Churchill Brothers, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan were all, on an average, earning fees in excess of 50 lacs per season. Take Dempo for example, the core of their local players comprising of Mahesh Gawli, Anthony Pereira, Climax Lawrence, Clifford Miranda and Samir Naik were all above the 50 lacs-a-season barrier with some players touching as high as 80 lacs a season.

When Mahindra United closed operations in the 2009-10 season, Churchill Alemao wasted no time in securing the signatures of a host of players like Steven Dias, Denzil Franco and Dharmaraj Ravanan, who at that time, signed three-year deals in excess of 50 lacs a year. They broke the bank to retain the services of goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya, signing him for 1cr for a period of two years. The big two from Kolkata, too, were not far behind. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal both lured players, most of them with six-figure sums.

At East Bengal, Naoba Singh, Lalrindika Ralte, Robin Singh, Raju Gaekwad and Mehtab Hossain were all breaking the 50+ lacs barrier, while arch-rivals Mohun Bagan too broke the bank to sign Nirmal Chettri, Syed Rahim Nabi and Denson Devadas for huge sums- all in excess of 60 lacs. The foreign players too made a killing, with someone like Odafa Okolie, who failed to find suitors in all three seasons of the ISL, earning about 2.2cr a season with Mohun Bagan.

Syed Rahim Nabi and Gourmangi Singh were India regulars and earned good money. Sadly, their careers have reached their nadir

The period between 2008 till the time the ISL kicked off saw Indian footballers earn as much as Grade B or Grade C contracted Indian cricketers.  According to an AIFF spokesman, in 2012, the average salary of an Indian player was anywhere between 35 to 50 lacs with fringe players earning as high as 20-25 lacs a season. Take Mehrajuddin Wadoo for example, a player who was a part of the I-League winning team with Salgaocar, in 2010-11. The Kashmir-born utility player signed a two-year deal worth 74 lacs soon after Salgaocar became champions but did not feature much for them in the following season prompting the management to offload him to Mohun Bagan.

There were players like Milagres Gonsalves who made less than ten starts in a season and yet earned about 16 lacs a year in 2013-14.  Players like Sanjay Balmuchu, Bikramjit Singh, Robert Lalthalma, Khan Thang Paite, Bineesh Balan, Raju Yumnan, Jaison Vales, Thoi Singh, Sukhwinder Singh, Gilbert Oliveira and Saran Singh were relatively unknown names at that time but were all comfortably earning about 20-25 lacs a season.

There was definitely a section of the Indian football fraternity that felt that Indian players were being overpaid and that some amount of rationality had to take over the system when it came to player wages, but with the same pool of players circulating from one club to another and there being greater demand than supply, owing to very few new players coming out of the youth development system of the clubs, player wages could not be controlled. However, with the coming of the Indian Super League, player salaries reached a nadir.

The advent of the ISL resulted in greater supply and lesser demand for players

In the season preceding the ISL, the I-League comprised of 14 teams. During that time, a maximum of four foreign players were allowed in a squad that was fairly large, sometimes comprising of 32-33 players, due to the fact that each team played more than 26 games in a season. This meant that every team had about 27-28 Indian players on their roster which translated to about 380 Indian players playing top flight football.


Players’ draft at an ISL auction. The draft is likely to be back this season

With the advent of the Indian Super League and Indian football having two separate windows for its two leagues, clubs began to feel the pinch. Firstly, twelve-month contracts became six-month contracts between two clubs. In financial parlands, the economics of cash flow took over. Paying a player 40 lacs over a period of twelve months and a player 20 lacs over six months seemed mathematically logical but difficult to implement in terms of funding. With financial trouble hitting most of the I-League clubs, cash flow dried up.

14 teams in the 2013-14 season soon became 11 in the 2014-15 season and 9 in the 2015-16 season. With I-League clubs closing down to protest the step-motherly treatment given to them, players suddenly seemed to be plenty resulting in more supply and less demand. The ISL clubs had an average of 14 domestic players per team which meant just about 112 Indian players were playing. Worse still, most of these players were automatic choices in the I-League teams which meant the same set of players was playing both leagues. There was another problem. Players who were content enough to play just the Indian Super League and opted not to play the I-League soon became redundant as they went off the radar for six months.


Every ISL team boasted of an Indian superstar in the first season. Some of them are lost into the myriad roads of dark alleys in Indian football  

Take former India international Francis Fernandes as an example. The former Salgaocar skipper first played in the ISL for Delhi Dynamos at 55 lacs a season for the first year and then played the I-League for Dempo. The following year he just played the ISL and due to problems with the Delhi Dynamos management, he couldn’t play the I-League. By the time the third season of the ISL came calling, Francis had to be content playing for Pune City for less than half the amount he earned in his two seasons at Delhi.

This “out of sight-out of mind” predicament, prompted players like Sanju Pradhan, who played for a paltry sum at Salgaocar and Arata Izumi, who played for Neroca FC in this year’s second division league to play for paltry sums, just to remain visible, deflating the market even further. There are other examples like that of Jackichand Singh and Seityasen Singh who earned big bucks at the auction, then struggled to establish themselves in the ISL and the I-League, hurtling their values by more than half the following season.

In Goa, for example, the situation has reached a precarious position with the closure of three of the most successful clubs in the region. Last year, for example, there was a situation where some Goa-based players like Germanpreet Singh, Victorino Fernandes, Shallum Pires, Albino Gomes and Adil Khan actually took a pay cut to play in the I-League just to remain relevant and “in-sight” of the ISL and I-League scouts. Established players like Nicolau Colaco, Joaquim Abranches, Peter Carvalho and Gilbert Oliveira- who has won the ISL with Chennaiyin FC are now earning less than 8 lacs a season, playing just the Goa Pro League.

The other conceivable problem was the system of the draft that took over the conventional signing methods followed all over the world. In 2014, IMG-Reliance signed several players on their roster for contracted sums who were then picked by clubs for that amount. Only FC Goa and NorthEast United, owing to the fact that their owners owned I-League clubs signed players outside the draft. In the first ever draft, the average contracted amount of all players was 22.5 lacs, while in the second season it reduced to 18.45 lacs, although some players earned huge sums in the auction.

“Earlier there were a good number of players above the 50 Lacs category. Every one of the top clubs in India would have at least 5 to 7 players in that category. In the present scenario for a player to be a part of the 50+ lacs category is very tough. A national team player or a regular in the ISL or the I-League may struggle to break beyond the 40 Lacs mark. However some of the top players have seen their salaries increase even further due to auctions”, said the CEO of a renowned player representation firm in India to Khel Now.

The best benchmark to understand the gravity of the situation and how the player salaries have dwindled would be to compare the Indian national teams of the two eras. The team that represented India in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup had as many as 16 out of 23 players earning 50+ lacs a season. The present Indian team has just about 8 or 9 players who would earn more than 50 lacs a year playing the ISL and the I-League

The situation among the next rung of clubs vying for a place in the I-League is no different. Several second division clubs like Kenkre and Ozone FC have reportedly failed to pay the players, sounding out desperate times for Indian footballers. Among the I-League teams, Minerva Punjab, DSK Shivajians and Churchill haven’t paid their players yet in full while Chennai City FC also had problems before they were resolved.

Apart from Bengaluru FC, all of the corporate entry teams in the I-League have had financial problems and have delayed payments to players further dirtying the already murky waters of Indian football. Several players’ careers have ended prematurely due to this uncertainty and it would be in Indian football’s best interests if the ecosystem for players in India is improved. With football in India undergoing a sea change, it would be paramount for the interests of the players to be looked after, after all, football is as good as the players that play it.

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