Inside Football in India – What next for the I-League clubs?

One more year gone. One more season of I-League is over, amidst uncertainty of its future. Chennai City FC became the new Champions. But before they play their final match and celebrate their title, there were news reports going round with quotes from I-League CEO Sunando Dhar saying this was the last ever season of I-League, from next season Indian Super League (ISL) will be the new top division of the country. Seems like AIFF has finally decided to put an end to the 5- year long two-league saga. No one knows how AIFF is going to do this. Will they merge I-League & ISL, or ISL will get expanded by adding only East Bengal & Mohun Bagan?

Before we get into this, let’s first take a look at how football ecosystem works and where I-League & ISL are placed in that context.

A league is one that takes care of ALL stakeholders, either big or small. One that is fair and just has a same level playing field for football clubs from all the regions. There needs to be a proper pipeline. A proper structure that can provide a pathway for any club from any part of country to one day make it to the top tier.

For now, I-League is the only national league in India which works on this principle. The 2nd Division league champions win promotion to top division every year. The team who finishes last in the top division is relegated to the 2nd Division. Though in last 2 years, the relegated teams got reinstated back for different reasons, they have never blocked the way for new 2nd division champions. These new clubs bring new pool of players & new fans from their localities. And these clubs has kept I-League alive and fresh despite facing all the odds.

While ISL is a franchise-based league. It works like many other leagues in India (IPL, PBL, PVL, PWL, ProKabaddi etc), where Highest bidders get to play. It doesn’t have promotion-relegation system.

It’s understandable, in other sports, we didn’t have club structure in place. But in football, we have had clubs playing in two divisions of the I-League. ISL was created as a separate tournament with new teams, outside of the existing league structure.


In 2014, @praful_patel reassured us that #ILeague will be the “League of India”, ISL was just a “booster dose” and that some ISL clubs were in talks to “progress to the I-League”. If lying and deception decided FIFA rankings, we’d be no.1 (on merit).
Tweet by Akarsh Sharma (@Akarsh_Official)

In 2010, IMG-Reliance became the marketing partner of AIFF and in 2014 they brought a new league cum tournament that is ISL. I-League & ISL were running in a separate window periods till 2017. In 2017, ISL got reorganized by Asian Football Confederation (AFC) as a national knockout cup tournament and from then, ISL is running simultaneously alongside I-League.

AFC report from last year, where it has clearly mentioned Chennaiyin FC (winner of ISL) as a National Knock-out Cup Champion.

ISL teams knew if they played in same league with other I-League clubs, they might not succeed. So they established their brands by playing in their own separate tournament. Good players moved to ISL because of better salaries. That was not a problem. But problem started when AIFF (under pressure from Reliance) began to treat I-League like a second-fiddle competition in spite of it being the top division. I-League matches got piss poor & irregular telecast. And Because of all the attention towards ISL in last 5 years, It has systematically drained the resources & sponsorships of small I-League clubs. It would never happen if all the I-League & ISL clubs were playing in the same league. Due to lack of clear roadmap for the future, Some I-League clubs pulled out, while many kept playing & kept producing good players & providing them to ISL.

Gradually, Reliance have taken full control over every activity of the national federation (AIFF). They now working as an agency, where if clubs pay them money, they get to play in the league & Reliance will arrange everything for them. They convinced Asian Football Confederation to give one AFC Cup slot to ISL. For that Reliance had to let go the full control over its teams, but still they have kept control over players & coaches recruitment & many other things via Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), which is run by Reliance personnel. Last year, IMG exited from FSDL stating “IMG is focused on delivering services globally and it didn’t want to own the league.”

For a club to join the top flight, the FSDL have to approve it and if they reject it then that’s it. No other recourse. It’s all up to the whims and fancies of a single entity. There is no accountability.


Reliance want ISL as a top division. But ISL teams have 10 years contract with them which also includes ‘One City One Team’ rule, means exclusivity of a team over a particular city for 10 years. Though Reliance is now ready to include more teams, but they are asking hefty franchise-fees from the I-League clubs. Small budget I-League can’t afford that. And even if they afford, why would they give money to Reliance? They already are a top division clubs and most of them reach the top by winning promotion from the 2nd Division. If Reliance don’t change their stand, all the current I-League top division clubs (except EB & MB) may get forcefully demoted to the new 2nd Division. That is unfair in every aspect.

There is no guarantee they will open the league even after next 5 years.

Our national federation can’t do anything, they have sold all their rights to Reliance. Tired of all this, I-League Clubs have wrote a letter to AFC to intervene. I-League are ready to play with ISL teams in the same new league.

Perhaps, ISL teams are still afraid of the competition from these small I-League clubs.

If ISL becomes top division & if there won’t be promotion & relegation, top division teams will take their top division status for granted, while lower division clubs will be restricted to academic purpose only. What will be the motivation for these lower division clubs? What they would play for? Why people would support theses clubs knowing they won’t get promoted even if they win, only to see them playing in the same division again & again? Why any investor would invest in the lower division? It will not be a pyramid it is supposed to be. New Top Division (ISL) will remain a separate entity from the other two divisions. Same teams will keep playing against each other at top. Indian Football will become stagnant. Lower division clubs will eventually die due to lake of opportunities. If these clubs die, club football will die in India.

Think about the clubs from far outskirts of the country who are dreaming to reach the top & make it big one day. If ISL never ever open bidding from the cities where these clubs are operating in, They will never get a chance to play at top despite capable of beating top teams. What about their dreams?

Enter a Bengaluru FC vs Churchill Brothers, Kanteerava Stadium | April 29, 2017

League is about competition. And if small clubs can beat the big clubs with better facilities & players, they deserve their spot in the top division. Clubs who can’t compete will eventually get relegated at the end of the season. Big clubs can’t/ shouldn’t throw them out only because they are small.

If ISL wants to become top division, it must need to become inclusive for all. ISL teams must have to prove their superiority by playing in the same league with the I-League clubs. They can’t call themselves better by playing in a separate tournament.

Recently, Sunil Chhetri & Bhaichung Bhutia have come in support of the small clubs & put a weight on the need to continue pro/rel.


The Field@thefield_in
Smaller Indian clubs must be taken into account while making future plans: Sunil Chhetri | @ArkaTweets10 reports.



TOI Sports News@TOISportsNews
Big question mark over ISL’s future if I-League clubs are ignored: Bhaichung Bhutia

In a country obsessed with franchise-based leagues, the I-League was the only relief.

Now when ISL is all set to become the new top division, it remains to be seen whether it will adopt the I-League philosophy or it will remain that same boring closed league.

Article by Dharak Makwana. Follow him on Twitter and at Sportsbieindia

India Gears Up For Football Frenzy With ISL Kick Off

India gets set for ISL inaugral season (Image from Getty)

In just over a month’s time, the inaugural season of the Indian Super League is set to begin with anticipation in the country reaching fever pitch. The league, which comprises of eight teams, was founded last year in a bid to make football into one of the top sports in India and put the country firmly on the international footballing map. Set up to run similar to the MLS, the league operates based on a franchise system in an attempt to get some of India’s wealthiest individuals to participate and back it. The idea has worked with Bollywood stars Abhishek Bachchan, John Abraham and Ranbir Kapoor joining cricketing legends Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar in taking out stakes in the clubs. They are supported by some of India’s biggest companies such as DEN Networks and Videocon who have added financial clout to the projects. Associations with clubs across Europe have also been established with Spanish champions Atletico Madrid, Italian side Fiorentina and Dutch giants Feyenoord partnering with individual clubs, offering them technical support and guidance in the development of the team over the next few years. With a sponsor in the form of Hero Motorcorp coming on board (effectively renaming the league the Hero Indian Super League) and a TV network (Star Sports) committing to broadcast the games, the league was established with all that remained was to build the squads.

Cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar is backing the league  (Image from Getty)

Cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar is backing the league
(Image from Getty)

Each squad would comprise of 22 players with a minimum of 14 Indian players in each one in order to protect and grow the national identity of the league. A further rule of having four players from the city that the team was based in was also created to instill regional pride in its teams and allow fans to cheer on local heroes. The remaining 8 players could be signed from anywhere in the globe with each team allowed to select only one as their marquee or star player. Two drafts were introduced, one held in late July for only Indian players which included the entire Indian national team and a second weeks later for foreign players. India midfielder Lenny Rodrigues became the first player selected by FC Pune City and will go down in the record books as the first ISL player in history. However it was the selection of the foreign players that has attracted the most interest from the global press. A host of well known names were amongst the draft including former Newcastle striker Michael Chopra, French defender Bernard Mendy, Spanish striker Jofre Mateu, Swedish midfielder Bojan Djordjic and Canadian international Iain Hume. Michael Chopra was the first player selected in a move that excited the former Ipswich striker. He is keen to move to India in order to gain his citizenship so that he can fulfill his dream of playing international football for India. England born Chopra qualifies through his grandparents who hail from the country. With the drafts completed the last thing that remained was for each club to select its marquee player and the manager.

Lenny Rodrigues was the first player selected in the ISL draft  (Image from PA)

Lenny Rodrigues was the first player selected in the ISL draft
(Image from PA)

Atlético de Kolkata was the first team to make its move appointing Antonio López Habas as its new manager and signing former Liverpool and Atletico Madrid winger Luis Garcia as its marquee player. Not to be outdone, Guwahati side Northeast United revealed 2010 Spanish World Cup winner Joan Capdevila as their star player, hiring former New Zealand boss Ricki Herbert as their new coach. FC Pune City responded by bringing in Italian Franco Colomba as their manager and World Cup winning striker David Trezeguet whilst Delhi Dynamos FC opted for Dutch coach Harm Van Veldhoven and Italian superstar Alessandro Del Piero as their choices. Sachin Tendulkar’s Kerala Blasters FC surprised many by selecting former England goalkeeper David James as both their new manager and marquee signing, who at 44 years old becomes the league’s oldest player. James will be joined in the league by fellow countryman Peter Reid who along with assistant Steve Darby have agreed to manage Mumbai City FC. Having previously coached in Asia with the Thailand national team, the 58 year old has experience working in the region and is looking forward to the challenge. His first job will be to select a marquee player as Mumbai are one of three teams still to do so. The other two teams are FC Goa, who will be managed by Brazilian legend Zico and the Abhishek Bachchan owned Chennai Titans, who are yet to appoint a manager or marquee player but have been linked heavily with Brazilian Ronaldinho. The former Barca star is on the lookout for a new club after leaving Atlético Mineiro and the chance to play in India may appeal. A move looks likely given that the only other club to make a formal bid for the player has been Basingstoke Town. The audacious move by the English Conference South side is likely just a PR stunt but contact has been made with the player’s agent and an offer tabled.

David James will be player manager of Kerala Blasters FC  (Image from ISL)

David James will be player manager of Kerala Blasters FC
(Image from ISL)

Regardless of whether Ronaldinho joins or not, the inaugural Hero Indian Super League kicks off on the 12th October with the match between Atletico de Kolkata and Mumbai City FC. The season runs only until the end of December as in a move designed to encourage high sustained viewing figures, the league is taking a different format to its matches with a game being played almost every day from October to the end of the year. With interest in football in India at a record high during this summer’s World Cup, league organizers are hoping to capitalize on this hunger for the sport and make it as popular as cricket is. Like the MLS’ debut season, much will rest on the quality of the football on show and less so on the spectacle. Time will tell if the league has the sustainability that league like the MLS and Australian A- League have or whether India will have to go back to the drawing board once again in order to finally join footballs elite leagues.

For more info on the league, check out the official ISL website:

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