"I-League will be the League of India. ISL is a booster dose to bring new fans and is intended as a short-term measure. Few ISL teams even want to join the I-League eventually."
Clearly, things did not go the intended way as six years down the line, the ISL has snatched the title of India’s Premier League from the I-League and has rendered the Indian football pyramid as a closed structure of 10 (or 11 teams).
The ISL. with the assistance from AIFF and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), has put aside the ideas of promotion and relegation, which has affected the I-League and I-League 2nd Division.
A closed league shuts out the lower divisions
The ISL was adjudged as the top-tier of India from the 2019-20 season. The 2020-21 Indian football season will be the second footballing calendar with a closed top division in India.
A closed top-division league leaves the divisions below with no incentive to invest in club football. The football clubs with the objective to play the top division will have nowhere to aim for with a closed structure. The new football clubs will see a fall in investment and revenue generation in the lower divisions, as the market gets protected at the top by the ISL organisers.
Big Indian football clubs like Dempo SC, Salgaocar SC, Sporting Clube de Goa, Shillong Lajong and Minerva Punjab have all withdrawn from the league structure after the ISL began to sideline I-League and eventually emerge as the top division. The withdrawal from the pyramid structure is a by-product of lack of a level-playing meritorious platform and the fall in interests from investors in the league.
Several football clubs playing in state leagues like Goa, Kolkata, Kerala, Manipur, Mizoram, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi have shown interests in entering the Indian football scene but did not opt for the same.
The reluctance of entering the Indian football market is at an all-time high and, the problem is not only on face value. The lack of clubs in the pyramid structure marred by classist restrictions has slowed down the organic growth of the Indian football player pool. Talented youngsters with capabilities to go on to represent the national team do not enter the league structure.
The fall of investment and revenue in the lower divisions due to the closed-structure clout also results in fall of player wages. State leagues like the Goa Pro League and Calcutta Football League pay better than the I-League 2nd Division and even the I-League itself.
The systematic negligence of the I-League by lower levels of marketing and sponsorships, along with a sidelined treatment in contrast with the Indian Super League, has resulted in clubs like Pune FC, Mumbai FC, Royal Wahingdoh, DSK Shivajians United Sikkim, Viva Kerala, JCT FC and Mahindra United shutting shop.
The 2nd Division, which used to serve as the beginning of a dream to enter the top division, has been rendered as just a formality due to its lack of attractiveness to football clubs and companies wanting to invest in Indian football.
A closed structure only works for the top division
When the ISL was founded in 2013, the organisers, the Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), penned a 10-year protectionist deal with the original 8 franchises till the end of the 2023-24 season. The deal was supposed to protect the investments of the corporates entering Indian football for the first time.
The move made commercial sense but failed to make any sporting sense. The ISL teams (now 10 or 11) have established themselves in the market and should be ready to welcome new ambitious football clubs from the I-League. A harmonious Indian club football atmosphere is the need of the hour.
With the AFC, FSDL and AIFF agreeing to promote teams on merit from the 2022-23 season and eventually begin relegation from the 2024-25 season, Indian football should bypass the current troubled and conflicting time with relative ease. The federation has to instil confidence in the lower league sides as only an AFC Cup berth is not enough to invest in lower league football. Sights at the top division will always remain as a paramount ambition for every new football club in the Indian football scene.Published 10 Sep 2020, 10:28 IST