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I-League clubs' roadmap paves the way for future of Indian football- but at what cost?

Written by: Uttiyo Sarkar

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The future of the top flight looks uncertain as of now with the AIFF unable to concratize any plans.

A revolution is well and truly underway in Indian football. As the league season has come to an end, the I-League clubs are now fighting a battle for their own existence. With the All India Football Federation (AIFF) planning on scraping India’s top football league and replacing it with the Indian Super League (ISL), the I-League clubs have refused to bow down.

After pulling out from the Super Cup one after the other, they've already left the apex body in an embarrassing predicament. The federation had allegedly planned on inviting I-League 2nd Division clubs to replace their top flight counterparts, just in order to go through with the cup competition. However, the I-League sides have now agreed to play in the tournament, only under some conditions.

In what is a detailed roadmap for how the future of Indian top-level football should look like, the I-League clubs have themselves architected the sketch for a unified league next season. The roadmap explains how there should be a 20-team top league, called the Indian Football League, followed by 16 teams in the 2nd Division League. There would be a promotion and relegation system, while cup games will be played in midweek like in Europe.

AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das hinted at a possible league merger next season

Not only the tournament roadmap, but even the financial blueprint has been laid out by the I-League clubs. The document suggests that the total net sponsorship revenue be taken as around ₹320 crores. From this, ₹240 crores would be equally distributed among the 20 top division sides, ₹32 crores be distributed among the I-League 2nd division clubs and ₹4 crores as parachute payment for the relegated clubs. Also, ₹50 crores would go to AIFF/FSDL.

According to the financial blueprint, the clubs can use the investment to improve their youth development, infrastructure, fan and community engagement and so on. The clubs also ask that a mandatory 10% be spent on youth development and each team would also have to pay ₹2 crores to AIFF/FSDL as participation money, not franchise fee.

While this idealistic plan is admirable in theory, just how feasible this roadmap is, is the burning question. This blueprint is almost completely different to the AIFF’s roadmap, which reportedly insists on making the ISL the top league in India and relegating most of the I-league clubs to the second division.

The AIFF’s proposal also indicates that there won’t be promotion/relegation initially, but it’ll be a 13-14 team competition, with multiple new teams being added next season. However, if this goes through, many I-League clubs could end up fading away.

As a result, the clubs have finally put their money where their mouths are to come up with this plan. While AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das and I-League CEO Sunando Dhar have both acknowledged receiving it and have been positive with their outlook towards it, we must question exactly how this transition will be done in such a limited space of time.

For one, the financial blueprint itself is arguably flawed. If a team has to invest almost ₹4 crores towarrds youth development and give some to the AIFF, how will they sustain their own expenses with the remaining kitty?

Infrastructure development, community promotion work along with the matchday, travelling expenses will inevitably result in losses for the clubs, which will hurt some financially meagre clubs quite badly. Even the AIFF, who organize the league, will be making big losses with such a small fee which they’ll receive from the clubs.

Also, India has never had a proper football season in its history. While imitating the top European leagues is admirable, the process, workload and ability to pull off a proper 9-month long football season is easier said than done. Even if fans of the clubs are geared up to support their teams throughout the campaign, it’s uncertain whether the players themselves will be able.


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Furthermore, if a proper 20-team league goes through, at least 400 domestic players will need to go under the hammer to fill the rosters. Even if one takes together both ISL and I-League clubs, it’s difficult to find that many players, who can actually sustain a proper footballing season. Fatigue could strike half the players halfway into the campaign, resulting in an injury crisis, drop in quality of gameplay and slowly in decreasing interest from the fans.

Even the foreigners who the clubs manage to attract won’t necessarily want to indulge in a 9-month league. Most of the ISL or I-League foreigners, who are either past their peak or not fit to play a proper football season, could refuse to return to their parent clubs if this goes through. Be it lack of quality in foreigners, lacking in fitness or just not having enough intention to play a proper season, the attraction could fade away.

Even if the number of foreigners in each team are restricted to four, many teams might struggle to sign quality players who can actually help the Indian players grow as well. As Indian football finds itself at a dangerous crossroads, going forward with either roadmap could have its potential benefits and negative consequences.

Should the AIFF bow to these demands? How will doing so affect the footballing climate? Can the football clubs sustain themselves in a 9-month long footballing season with limited resources? Can the players themselves sustain their performances over a longer season? Many questions are upon everyone after this new model. However, with the future of the domestic game hanging in the balance, th AIFF has some important decisions to make in the upcoming months.

Published: Fri Mar 22, 2019 11:48 AM IST

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