Indian football’s future still dogged by uncertainty

Mats Hummels – Borussia Dortmund Homecoming

The future of Indian football could be decided today in Kuala Lumpur – or not. You never know these days.

At the moment, a look around the country’s football scene reveals about as much as a New Delhi dawn sky from last winter.

The country’s love for bureaucracy is legendary around the world. The red tape has spread into all levels of the beautiful game. Sports pages in the media are full of meetings off the pitch rather than anything on it. Fans are left frustrated and just want a bit of clarity and leadership.

Instead what they get are more meetings, more delays and more uncertainty. Nobody knows what is going on with the proposed merger between the I-League, the traditional top tier of the country’s football pyramid, and the Indian Super League, a glitzy and glamorous short-lived tournament featuring eight high-profile franchises and more famous players from around the world.

The excitement surrounding that competition has faded a little since 2014 but the average attendance from 2016 of just over 20,000 would be welcome in all but the very top leagues in the world. Marquees such as John Arne Riise and Diego Forlan help to make headlines and attract interest in a way that the I-League, struggling for profile, profits and popularity has been simply unable to achieve.

It was unsurprising then that the All India Football Federation, and its commercial partner IMG-Reliance which runs the ISL through a subsidiary, would see merging the two leagues as an answer to the problems of both. The ISL brings the stardust, the fans and the media while the I-league brings historic clubs and the local players (who make up a large contingent of ISL squads when the I-League is resting).

Naturally, there are issues. ISL owners generally lose money over a ten-week tournament. How that will be addressed over a much longer season has yet to be resolved though it looks likely that clubs would not have to sign famous marquee stars.

Also, the merger isn’t much of merger. It is about as balanced as the deal between Darth Vader and Lando Calrissian in Empire Strikes Back.

The plan is that the Super League becomes the top and the I-League goes second without, as yet, promotion between the two.

In May, IMG-Reliance’s subsidiary invited bids from ten cities to take the final two or three spots in the top tier if they pay an entry fee of around $2.5 million. There is room for two or three I-League teams – Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal obviously (who want a free pass for ‘heritage reasons’) and possibly Bengaluru.

There was no mention of Aizawl. And there should have been as Aizawl had just spread Bai all over the faces of AIFF and IMG-R. The team from Mizoram, a football factory in the northeast that had never won the title, had been relegated out of the I-League in April 2016 but allowed back in for the following season due to the withdrawal of other clubs (as mentioned above, the league has had problems). Yet little Aizawl only went and won the title on the last day of the season.

What a story, one that all football – no, all sports – fans could appreciate. A minnow, run on a shoestring budget of around $250,000 a year, becoming champions.

Aizawl upset the apple cart.

Yet in the maddening world of Indian football the romance lasted about as long as a Bollywood movie. If the merger went ahead for next season then the champions of Indian football would be placed in the second tier. They had not been invited to bid for a place and could not afford it regardless.

And what of the Asian Champions League and the AFC Cup, the continental competitions that the I-League gives access to (though there would be greater representation if the AIFF had done what clubs had been asking for years and registered the I-League as a separate entity)? Nobody knows. At the moment, the ISL is a standalone competition not recognised by the Asian Football Confederation with no relegation, youth teams or enough teams.

It is all a muddle. The merger seems to be on delay for a while. In the meantime, the I-League and the ISL look set to continue. There are plans however to expand the ISL and should that happen then it is possible that the tournament will continue to take more attention, players and money away from the I-League and become the de facto top tier anyway.

On Wednesday, a meeting will take place in Malaysia between the AFC, AIFF and clubs from the I-League and the ISL. Just some clarity and real leadership would be nice. It is debatable whether a merger is the best thing for Indian football but anything would be better than this limbo that the club scene is in.

At least the national team is in good shape. A win next week at home to Kyrgyzstan would really have the Blue Tigers on course for the 2019 Asian Cup. If only everything was in Indian football was so simple. It could be and one day it surely will be. Quite when though, is anyone’s guess.