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Two leagues one goal: should India’s two leagues merge to improve Indian football?

Thursday, 27 August 2015

For a considerable period of time, Indian football has seemingly been on the brink of competing at the highest level. The size of the nation, coupled with a large population of the subcontinent seemingly infatuated with the beautiful game, begs the question as to why the sporting landscape has been dominated by a single sport, namely cricket, for as long as one can remember.

In light of such factors, the development of football in India shapes up to be a rather attractive prospect from both an athletic and a commercial point of view. However, despite the constant reassurances from the government with regard to its commitment to the sport, and despite being touted as a sleeping giant1 by FIFA, as things stand, domestic football in India doesn’t seem to be developing at the necessary pace for the nation to take its place alongside the actual giants of the game.

Presently, there exist two separate domestic football leagues in India, with the calendar recently having been adjusted to ensure adequate athletic participation in both competitions:

  • The Hero I-League (I-League) is the country’s premier club football competition, based on a system of promotion and relegation. Currently, the league has 11 participating teams.
  • The Hero Indian Super League (ISL) is the newest professional football league in India, and employs the franchise-based setup. There is no system of promotion and relegation.
  • In the past, the I-League usually runs for a period starting late September or early October, and ending early in May. In 2014-15, however, the inaugural season of the ISL started on 12 October 2014 and ran till 20 December 2014.
  • Consequently, the duration of the I-League was shortened, and was shifted to a slot beginning 17 January 2015 and ending 31 May 2015.
  • To a large extent, the same players play in both the leagues, owing to the ISL franchises signing players on loan from the various I-League clubs.
  • The All India Football Federation (AIFF) maintains that the I-League is the primary league in India.

This article examines the history of the dual-league setup, its viability going forwards, and the possibility of merging the two leagues at some point in the future, as has been said to be the ultimate objective of the All India Football Federation (AIFF).

The I-League and its problems

In 1996, the institution of a league competition, in the form of the erstwhile National Football League2 (NFL), came into operation to catalyse the development of Indian football. The idea was to have pan-Indian participation in a league format in order to promote the sport in a uniform manner. On paper, the proposed format was rather practical, with the objective being the institution of a three-tier league system complete with promotion and relegation on a seasonal basis.

In 2007, the AIFF decided to replace the NFL with the ONGC I-League in an attempt to revitalise the state of football in India.3 Presently, the league operates under the banner of the “Hero I-League” due to a change in title sponsorship. At the execution stage, the domestic league has suffered, and continues to suffer even after its rebranding, from problems such as inadequate infrastructure and unprofessional conduct on almost all fronts. A major criticism of the league is also a conspicuous under-representation of most national regions, with a number of the clubs participating in the top flight being concentrated within the same states, thus stunting the development of the game into a truly pan-Indian phenomenon. Last season, the eleven teams comprising the I-League featured from just five states. Aside from implicitly neglecting the other regions of the nation, such concentration adversely affects the footfall owing to a largely similar demographic being divided into multiple teams, thus preventing the establishment of a nationwide club culture.

With various incidents of unpaid wages and financial mismanagement leading to heavy operational losses, the league has regularly struggled in terms of competition.4 A number of clubs have been disbanded over the years, with the newer clubs vying to take their place having to start from scratch on a regular basis. Further, a constant tinkering of the rules almost every season since the very inception of the league has affected the stability of the same, which has a trickle-down effect on the lower leagues, where the clubs can never be sure of making it to the I-League owing to the AIFF accommodating a system of direct-entry in addition to regular promotion from the second division.5

In light of all these factors, the AIFF signed a long term agreement with Mumbai based Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL), in association with the International Management Group (IMG), in a bold move to accelerate the growth of football by revamping the league structure in India.6 As per the agreement, RIL-IMG was granted all commercial rights including sponsorship, advertising, merchandising, broadcasting and intellectual property rights, related to football in India. Most importantly however, the entity had the right to establish a new league system in India, which finally materialised as the Hero-Indian Super League.


Introduction of the Hero Indian Super League

In order to understand the intricacies of the issues at hand, it is required, at the very outset, to familiarize oneself with the ground realities of Indian football, as it has developed over the past few years. The nation has been seen to have massive potential in terms of growth for quite a while now. However, what perplexes the outside observers is the stubborn refusal of the country to bloom into an Asian powerhouse, despite a healthy presence of all the basic ingredients for the development of this sport.

India currently languishes at a lowly rank of 156 as far as its official ranking in world football is concerned,7 with all the competitors in their World Cup qualification group ranked above them at present. The fact that this position remains unchanged from the previous month8 is an accurate representation of the ground realities of Indian football, which hasn’t just stagnated, but in fact has regressed to a point where a major overhaul of the system has become a necessity at every level of the game.

A blatant disregard9 for grassroots development10 has led to the talent pool being extremely shallow, which consequently results in largely the same set of athletes plying their trade in two different leagues over the course of the year.11 The ramifications of such a setup are bound to be felt in the longer run, when factors such as international commitment as well as player fatigue are added to the equation. As erstwhile coach, Wim Koevermans, rightly stated, there is a need to develop a football environment as a whole, in India, in order to ensure that the younger footballers have a chance to play regularly in order for them to maximise their potential.12

Improving the very standard of the game at home becomes imperative to keep in touch with the constant developments in global football. A positive development on this front however, has been the initiation of “Lakshya”, a program launched by the AIFF in order to inculcate among all the stakeholders involved in Indian football, a common philosophy in an effort to synchronise efforts to develop the sport.13 An encouraging feature of the program is the identification of youth development as the key to any future success as far as Indian football is concerned.14 Furthermore, due to the way football as a commodity has continued to develop over time, commercial factors such as media coverage and marketability of the sport assume significance.15 These are elements which have been a source of concern in the recent past, in the context of Indian football, with viewership being one of the main problems, owing to sub-standard television coverage coupled with the inconvenient time slot during which the matches take place.

In this regard, the introduction of the ISL was a welcome change, as far as the approach towards Indian football is concerned. Modelled along the lines of Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States of America,16 the league is backed by corporate giants, decorated sportspersons and highly successful members of the Indian film industry.17 Such illustrious presence automatically guarantees an increase in viewership, both within the arenas as well as through television.

A crucial feature of the league however, is the investors’ commitment to grassroots development, which is a prerequisite in order to own a franchise as part of the league.18 Furthermore, there has been imposed a salary cap, as well as a ceiling for expenditure which a club might undertake in order to ensure that the focus remains on developing local talent rather than marquee, international signings.19

Due to added corporate presence, the league has been marketed extremely well, which resulted in the inaugural season being highly successful in terms of television coverage as well as footfall in the arenas.20 However, the most attractive prospect as far as the ISL is concerned is an extremely conscious attempt to ensure that there is indeed a pan-Indian representation. From the very outset, bids were invited from nine specific cities spread all over the country, carefully chosen on the basis of a number of factors.21 The end product was rather popular, with the inaugural season of the ISL being the most attended league in Asia, and the fourth most attended league in the world.22

The eight applicants to be chosen however, were selected not only on the basis of financial competence, but also keeping in mind the long term vision of the applicant as far as the franchise is concerned.23 A mandated focus on the long term development of the talent pool therefore, is perhaps the most attractive feature of the ISL, and something which had become a necessity after an apparent inability of the I-League to deliver on the same front.

While the RIL-IMG deal guarantees significant investment as far as the sport is concerned, the same is not devoid of controversy. With the introduction of the ISL, the organisation of the I-League had to be rethought on account of scheduling conflicts due to the two leagues clashing with each other as per the original calendar. Furthermore, there was a requirement to loan players featuring for the I-League clubs in order to ensure that the top Indian athletes could participate in the competition. This of course, stems once again from the underdeveloped grassroots which results in a shortage of top quality home-grown talent. After initial resistance under the banner of the Indian Professional Football Clubs Association (IPFCA), the I-League clubs agreed to loan their players to the various ISL franchisees,24 to be recalled once the ISL reaches its conclusion, in time for the beginning of the I-League, with Hero Motocorp acting as the new title sponsor.25

It would be pertinent to note at this juncture that the RIL-IMG agreement had the capability to influence scheduling and restructuring of the domestic competitions, which ultimately resulted in the I-League being shifted from its usual slot beginning September, to a period starting from January and ending well into the peak of the unforgiving Indian summer, even after being shortened considerably. Coupled with a requirement to have games during the day due to insufficient lighting at most stadiums, the conditions are far from favourable for both, the athlete as well as the spectator.


Coexistence of The Two Leagues

The introduction of the ISL sought to answer many questions with regard to the future of Indian football, owing to its relatively practical approach to the beautiful game, with a clear focus on the development of both, local infrastructure as well as local talent. However, it also posed a pertinent question, with regard to the future of the I-League. The stance of the AIFF is extremely clear on that front, with the Association making it clear that the I-League continues to be the primary football league in India.26

Such a stance is in keeping with the opinion of FIFA, with the Secretary General Jerome Valcke insisting in the past that the I-League is the only recognised league as far as India is concerned, with the ISL being a separate tournament, and not a league, played for the development and recognition of football in India.27

As per the FIFA Statutes, every member nation is to have one Association recognised by the Federation,28 with the League being a separate organisation subordinate to said Association.29 Furthermore, the member has the duty to determine the mandate of a League affiliated to its Association.30 Reading these regulations in light of FIFA’s insistence regarding the I-League being the primary club competition in India it is amply clear that the ISL cannot be said to be a rival league competition, per se.

However, owing to the relatively better roadmap laid down by the ISL, it is fair to wonder if the older league competition is to eventually give way to its younger counterpart. If the AIFF is to be believed however, such a question is to be answered in the negative, with the Association stressing the importance of the I-League, previously assuring that Indian representatives for the AFC Champions League as well as the Asian Cup are to be selected from within the I-League itself.31


Merger as a Possible Long-Term Solution

Despite regular assurances from the AIFF regarding the significance of the I-League, there exists considerable doubt with regard to the genuineness of such a claim, largely due to the stark contrast in the way the two leagues are operated at this point in time. The ISL has consciously tried to remedy the various problems plaguing the I-League, with performance based incentives in the ISL far more attractive than those in the I-League.

As a direct result of such factors there has been a change in priorities as far as the investors are concerned. Multiple teams currently operating within the ISL are backed by investors who also own teams in the I-League.32 Owing to the ISL putting up a much larger purse as compared to the I-League, the tendency to redirect the flow of money from the clubs operating in the I-League and towards those in the ISL is a realistic and understandable prospect.

For instance, Shrinivas Dempo holds a stake in FC Goa, playing in the Hero-ISL and Dempo FC, operating in the Hero I-League. He recently stated that owing to the meagre prize money on offer, it does not make financial sense for the investors to spend on a team playing in the I-League when a team in the ISL could be backed instead33. While such a stance may seem to be a bit ruthless, what it actually represents is the pragmatism which has engulfed football as a whole, at this point in time. The commercialization of football has resulted in all interested parties carefully analysing the best possible way to invest in the game, judged on the parameter of recouping said investment.

The fact that Dempo FC, a record five-time winner of the national league title, was relegated at the end of last season isn’t as alarming, as the stance of Shrinivas Dempo regarding the I-League heavyweight, which he plans on transforming into a feeder club for the likes of FC Goa.34 Given that Mr. Dempo is also Vice President of the AIFF,35 such a stance does not bode well for the future of the I-League, unless the very setup is revamped from within with the specific aim of countering such shortcomings. In fact, it has been argued that the relegation is attributable to a core of the Dempo FC personnel taking part in the ISL just prior to the commencement of the I-League.36

If AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das is to be believed however, the long term vision is to merge the two leagues in order to create a longer, more competitive league spread over a much longer period, as compared to the ISL which is a three-month long tournament.37 Sunando Dhar, the chief executive of the I-League has backed such a belief and has called for the best qualities of both the leagues currently operating in India to be merged in order to form a single, more sustainable entity.38 The vision is to achieve this goal within the coming three to five years, with the ultimate objective being an appearance at the FIFA World Cup in 2026.

However, there is a considerable gulf at the moment, between the vision and the reality on the ground, owing to the various logistical issues which materialize in a dual-league system. Although increased presence of the sport itself through added participation of corporate bigwigs should help in promoting the game at a much larger level, the consequent creation of a second league has raised certain issues as far as India’s international participation is concerned. This is largely owing to there being virtually no time slot for international friendlies to be conducted, especially against teams with a higher ranking.39

This consequently leads to India suffering as far as the international rankings are concerned, due to friendly competition being an important element in the ranking process.40 Furthermore, an inability to compete at the international level regularly affects the development of the athletes themselves, who are often found to be out of their depth when they eventually do come across international competition, usually in the form of the AFC Asian Cup as well as the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, where the level of football is much higher than what the Indian athletes are normally accustomed to. Lack of space in the calendar year therefore gives way to a major scheduling dilemma which consequently results in underperformance at the international stage, stemming from sub-par preparation.

In order to form a unified league however, the AIFF would do well to rethink its ownership criteria in order to ensure that the same are in line with the Regulations as laid down by FIFA. Taking the case of Shrinivas Dempo for instance, if the two leagues were to be merged in the future, questions regarding the ownership of multiple clubs would need to be addressed since the FIFA Regulations strictly prohibit such an arrangement in order to ensure that the integrity of the competition is not jeopardised.41

The AIFF, in its long term plan for the development of football talks about the possible creation of a super league which has among its objectives:42

  • Improved marketability of Indian football;
  • Increased investment into Indian football;
  • Incentivising competition and professionalism in Indian clubs;
  • De-localisation of competitive club football in India.

While the AIFF continues to back the I-League as the primary club competition in India, it is clear that the ISL is well placed to achieve the aforementioned objectives ahead of its elder cousin. As such, a merger does not seem to be a far-fetched notion, with the common objective of both the leagues being the overall development of Indian football. Such commonality assumes vital importance at a time when the idea of a uniform philosophy for the development of Indian football is being stressed upon by the Association, in an attempt to establish football as a national phenomenon.


Comments on a potential merger

In the author’s view, while the idea behind the I-League at the time of its introduction promised to guide Indian football to heights which are to be expected from a country of this size, the numerous faults in execution combined with a lack of investment as well as basic infrastructure at the grassroots level resulted in stunting the growth of the game. In this regard, the prospect of a football league heavily backed by corporate giants and high-profile businessmen seems like a step in the right direction.

While a merger definitely seems to be in the offing, potential problems stem from inefficient execution and apparent short sightedness exhibited by the planning entities, from the very outset. While it would have been better to rethink the setup of I-League in order to attract similar investors as the ISL has done, perhaps the presence of a separate tournament, packaged so attractively, would help the Association in making some vital decisions regarding the future of the I-League. Comparing and contrasting the two leagues, it is clear that both leagues differ constitutionally as well as at the execution stage, owing to the primary objectives of the two competition being extremely different.

It is pertinent to note that as things stand, neither setup, on its own, is sufficient for the long-term development of Indian football, both as a sport as well as a marketable entity. However, with the AIFF adamant about the primary onus being on the Hero I-League and at the same time appreciative of the numerous positives associated with the Hero-ISL, a merger to create a longer, more sustainable structure seems like much more than just a prospect.



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  29. Definition (3), FIFA Statutes.
  30. Article 18(1), FIFA Statutes.
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Comments (1)

  • Sanjay Kumar

    • 30 September 2015 at 00:20
    • #

    Nice Article Saurabh, I hope it helps Indian Football. Best Wishes


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