THE INDIAN FOOTBALL CONUNDRUM - THE INDIAN LEAGUE

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Wednesday, 23 September 2015

THE INDIAN FOOTBALL CONUNDRUM

Churchill Brothers SC, Champions of I-League (Season 2012-13)


When Churchill Brothers S.C., Rangdajied United F.C. and United S.C. were barred from participating in I-League because of them not being able to fulfil AFC Club Liscencing Criteria, it was the first instance when AIFF acted strictly against against the non compliance of the clubs. It was seen as a bold move by AIFF and expected to send a stern message to the Clubs, current and aspiring, that they need to take AFC Club Liscencing Criteria seriously and develop themselves accordingly.

Things were finally starting to look good in Indian Football, which had been in descent for years.
The arrival of City based clubs like Mumbai FC, Pune FC, Shillong Lajong and Bengaluru FC only helped the matters. Bengaluru FC, which was given a direct entry to I-League, had a great fan following from the start and winning the League in their debut season was like icing on the cake. I League was finally finding its feet among the small but increasing football fans of the country.

But Indian Football was set for a change. In 2010, AIFF signed a contract with Reliance Industries and International Management Group of United States worth Rs. 700 Crore that gave them the commercial rights to Sponsorship, advertisement, merchandising, video, franchisding and rights to create a new football league. Thus making IMG-Reliance the de facto owner of Indian Football. This deal made them responsible for rescheduling and restructuring of domestic competitions. And restructuring they did.

IMG-Reliance launched Indian Super League in October 2013, with format similar to Indian Premier League, the Cash rich T20 League. Bids for eight city based franchisees were invited which generated good response from Corporates and Bollywood Celebrity. Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Kochi, Guwahati and Goa were the cities that managed to invite highest bids with owners ranging from Giants of Corporate World to Bollywood Superstars to Cricketers. This IPL-Style football league with their glamorous owners generated great buzz among the masses. I-League Clubs resisted in the start but apart from Bengaluru FC and Pune FC all other clubs released their players to take part in the league.

Long Story short, the first season of Indian Super League was a great success with it becoming the fourth best league in the world in terms of average attendance. The major reason for the success of ISL was the amazing marketing by Star Sports, that started couple of month before the first kick-off which included Preview Shows, interviews with players and managers and Match Day coverage and in depth analysis of each game by competent experts. Another major reason for its success was the presence of players like Alesendro Del Piero, Robert Pires, Robert Pires, Nicholas Anelka and many other former greats. Presence of these stars helped the league to tap into the community fans of European football who had more interest in Chelsea's EPL journey than Mohun Bagan's performance in Kolkata Derby.

But here's the catch. AIFF though extends its patronage to Indian Super League, considers it only as a tournament, just like Durand Cup or IFA Shield. And as the league is not official league of India, the clubs or as they should be called, franchisees have no compulsion to follow AFC Club Liscencing Criteria. Also in order to accommodate ISL, AIFF cancelled Federation Cup, India's equivalent of FA Cup in England, citing lack of interest of the fans and using money saved from Fed Cup to broadbase 2nd Division League and U19 I League. There was protest by some clubs in this regard who argued that without Federation Cup, they will have to trim their Squad as there is no logic in retaining a squad of 30-32 players for 20 odd matches. But when has AIFF listened to the pleas of clubs.

The result is for everyone to see. According to a recent Times of India report, most of the players that were left unsold in ISL Draft are finding it hard to get new clubs as I-League clubs are not keen on signing new players for whole season as the regular season starts only in January. What is more baffling is the response of Kushal Das, who on being asked about this topic said that, "Its not the responsibility of AIFF to provide jobs to footballers. If they cant find clubs, they should look for alternative job opportunities."

One of the most important criteria of AFC Club Liscencing is the Club should have Youth Teams like U19, U17 etc. But ISL's unofficial status exempt them from this too. At the launch of ISL, grassroot development was the most used terms and all the franchisees pledged to invest in it. But after almost one year after the first season ended, we are yet to see any actual development in this by any franchisee. Atletico de Kolkata, though adopted the Nursery League of Kolkata and fielded an U23 Team called ATK Juniors in Calcutta Football League 3rd Division. Rest of the franchisees, in the name of Grassroot development took kids to play football in the weekend. Though a Central Youth Academy has been started by Reliance Foundation, named Reliance Young Champs that has 24 Kids in the age group U11, U13 U14.

So, Two times I-League Champions, Churchill Brothers SC, who also represented India in AFC Cup, were barred from participating in I-League because they were unable to fulfil AFC Liscencing Criteria, but we have an Unofficial League that occupies one-third of Football season, gets all the marketing, gets broadcasted in five languages on different channels with HD Quality, with almost no responsibility to Indian Football.

Lets Football!!!

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