AFC Cup to ISL, AFC Champions League to I-League - do clubs have an incentive of playing well in Super Cup?
When Bengaluru FC lock on horns with FC Goa on Sunday evening at the Mumbai Football Arena, there will a more than the championship at stake. The winner will not only get a hand over the coveted trophy but also get a pink slip to the AFC Cup. The I-League is not as glamorous as the former, but Chennai City FC has earned a berth in the AFC Champions League qualifying round after scripting a historic league title under the supervision of Singaporean coach Akbar Nawas. But what will drive the teams to perform better in the upcoming Hero Super Cup?
The Federation Cup has been the primary knockout tournament in the nation since it was given a halt by the concerned authorities a few years back. It was an exciting tournament in all respects, with the top teams competing. More importantly, the winner will be assured a spot in the AFC Asian Cup, which gave I-League teams another opportunity to break into the continental event. Replacement of the Federation Cup with the Super Cup has made the tournament a dull affair indeed which has no relevance.
At the current situation, Indian football is highlighted by two leagues, but there is a vast difference between the two. The ISL with its glitz and glamour, big match players, expensive transfers, vast media coverage is the more visible and talked-about league. Meanwhile, the I-League, with its traditional outfits are simultaneously carrying on their activities. The Super Cup gives a reality check to gauge the quality of the teams in both the leagues, but is that alone cannot give an incentive for the teams to take the tournament seriously.
On top of that, the I-League is not all treated in a fair manner. Recently, Minerva Punjab FC, a former I-League champion withdrew from the Super Cup, due to the unfair treatment received from the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF). Six other clubs including heavyweights East Bengal and Mohun Bagan also supported the cause as they also feel neglected by the football governing body. The Ranjit Bajaj owned team also stressed on the fact that the AIFF did "not provided any financial assistance to the participating teams" in spite of having an official sponsor.
There has been a word in the air for quite some time now that there will be a merger of both the leagues for a unified one which is likely to benefit Indian football. But the I-League teams are required to pay a huge sum as an entrance fee to the ISL. Moreover, the ISL outfits are franchise based and do not have the fear of being relegated, which is another factor the organisers should think about. Each and every top league in the world has a provision for promotion and relegation, which drives the teams to perform better, but the ISL does not have such a system. On the other hand, it still follows a knock-out style followed by a final at the end, instead of the normal league style.
East Bengal has already roped in QUESS Corp. Ltd as their investor, which was followed by heavy spending during for the I-League. They are in a position to enter the ISL in return of a handsome fee, but the other teams do not enjoy such financial condition. Especially, the likes of Minerva Punjab FC, Chennai City FC, NEROCA FC and even Aizawl FC operate with minimum cash balance. Naturally, there will be a quality difference in the teams playing in the ISL and I-League. The Indian Super League teams will have an edge over the teams from the other league. With nothing at stake for the teams in the Indian Super Cup, the outfits may tend to rest players before continental duties.
There can be only one solution to this problem, a unified league with a promotion-relegation system. The winner gets a ticket to the AFC Champions League, while a knock-out style tournament will decide who will feature in the AFC Asian Cup. Otherwise, the Super Cup will remain a dead rubber, with no excitement and will be a waste of money for the owners and the organisers. More importantly, it will put a question mark on the vision of Indian football, which lacks a proper structure for the future days.