What AIFF may have missed out by excluding Second Division I-League teams from Super Cup
A small step for football clubs…a giant leap for Indian football
The introduction of the Super Cup by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has certainly gone a long way in putting the long-divided ISL and the I-League clubs on the same playing field for the very first time.
Unification of the two leagues, which are running simultaneously this season has been a long-talked-about issue, and although the final structure of a unified league is yet to be decided upon by the AIFF, there have been a lot of calls to level the playing field between the cash-rich ISL clubs and their seemingly deprived I-League counterparts.
“This is the first time that the I-League and the ISL teams will face each other, so it seems quite exciting,” says Delhi Soccer Association chief Shaji Prabhakaran,“The competitiveness in the Super Cup can also help with the merger. That way, the I-League clubs will also have more clarity about their future.”
While a unified league still remains a fantasy, the introduction of the Super Cup could indeed turn out to be an exciting affair.
“The I-League clubs will now get a chance to test themselves against the ISL clubs, who have more resources,” adds Prabhakaran. “Just look at Bengaluru FC. They have proved to one and all that an I-League club can give good competition to the ISL sides.”
However, there is one gaping hole in the manner in which the structure of the Super Cup has been laid out.
“Now, we have a three-tier system, and we have to make sure that teams from all three tiers take part in the Super Cup,” believes former Indian national team goalkeeper and current Western India Football Association CEO Henry Menezes.
I-League Second Division ignored?
Prior to the Super Cup, it was the Federation Cup, that used to pit the top eight teams between the I-League and the I-League Second Division, where the Indian football clubs that would try to claim their supremacy.
This season, however, it would be eight clubs each from the ISL and the I-League. The top six get a direct qualification, while the bottom four in each league battle it out to secure the last two qualification slots from their leagues.
In all this melee, the I-League Second Division seems to have lost out on the opportunity to pit themselves against the top teams in the country as they do not seem to feature in AIFF’s plans for the Super Cup at all…for this season at least.
“The opportunity should be given to the Second Division I-League to also be part of this tournament. Only then will the ecosystem work,” continued Menezes.
A cup competition that encompasses all professional teams in the country (and perhaps a few semi-professional teams as well) at such a high level could, in fact, help bridge the gap between the top clubs and the grassroots levels, giving us all the opportunity to see some new talent on show.
A case in point is the FA Cup in England, where the Conference (non-league) clubs can also give the top Premier League sides a good run for their money on certain occasions.
Shaji Prabhakaran believes that such an ecosystem could really help develop Indian football further.
“The beauty of a cup competition is that anyone can compete. Not just teams in the first, second or third division leagues, but the teams that play in the state levels as well,” says Prabhakaran. “It can be a good property for AIFF, where around a 100 teams can participate.”
Merely an early hiccup?
While calling out the omission of the AIFF, one must also keep in mind that a series of circumstances may have led to them do away with the third tier of Indian football from the Super Cup, at last for the time being.
The I-League Second Division was set to start around January but was later pushed back, presumably due to the lack of resources, as both the ISL and the I-League are still going on.
Now, as the top two leagues in the country are nearing the end this season, the third tier is yet to start.
“It was supposed to start in January and would have ended by now. Then, they could probably have had the top two sides compete in the Super Cup,” says Ranjit Bajaj, who is the owner of current I-League title favourites Minerva Punjab. “But they’ve not even started it yet.”
“They are probably not doing that this season because the I-League Division 2 is starting late,” says Menezes.
Shaji Prabhakaran himself believes that the 2017-18 season has been a “transition period” for Indian football, and an increase in the number of participating clubs in the future could do wonders for the Super Cup.
It is rather sad to see that the third tier of Indian football will not participate in Super Cup, the competition still promises to be an exciting affair. It also builds the good ol’ “David vs Goliath” narrative, something that is just adored by neutral football fans.
However, the inclusion of lower levels of Indian football in the Super Cup would certainly further build on that narrative and could make the tournament more exciting for the viewers.
Let’s hope that the exclusion of the I-League Second Division clubs from the Super Cup is merely a first-season hiccup.