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Why a Single Multi-tiered League is Best For Indian Football

Here’s why a single league structured in the multi-tier format would benefit the development of football in India.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
The I-league and the Indian Super League (ISL) are trying to outmuscle each other to be the premier competition – just petty.
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India will be the cynosure of the sporting world’s eyes, courtesy of being the host nation of the U-17 World Cup starting 6 October – the first time that a FIFA event is being held in the nation.

Having broken into the top 100 ranks earlier in 2017, the senior men’s national team are on the cusp of qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 2011. It is indeed unfortunate that at such an exciting time for the sport in the country, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and other stakeholders are not prioritising things right.

The I-league and the Indian Super League (ISL) are trying to outmuscle each other to be the premier competition, which is just petty. We analyse why a single league structured in the multi-tier format would benefit the development of football in India.

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Atletico de Kolkata and Kerala Blasters in action during the ISL final in 2016.
Atletico de Kolkata and Kerala Blasters in action during the ISL final in 2016.
(Photo: Indian Super League) 

I-league vs ISL

ISL was introduced to warm reception by fans and media alike in late 2013. It provided the much-needed monetary impetus and media coverage to promote the sport. Four years on, it is difficult to measure its impact in terms of grassroots-level development and contribution of players to the national set-up.

While the ISL brings immense visibility, the knockout format makes coaches slightly risk-averse and they resort to playing foreigners as opposed to giving a chance to Indian youngsters. FC Goa’s Zico tried his best to play with a core group of Indians, but they simply weren’t up to the mark against rivals loaded with foreign imports.

Despite abundant talent, local players’ football skills need to be honed and brought up to a higher level before they can measure up to contest against the world’s elite.

Zico alone cannot bring about change; other clubs’ managers will have to commit to the development of Indian youth (with glory only a by-product of it) if the primary purpose is to be achieved.

I-league on the other hand, has been closely involved in developing the careers of up-and-coming youngsters through various teams – notably Bengaluru FC, Aizawl FC and so on. However, it is not as aggressively and widely marketed as the ISL. Lower monetary compensation, lack of notable sponsors, and poorer television coverage means that it faces a real threat of fading out.

Aizawl FC team celebrate with the I-League trophy.
Aizawl FC team celebrate with the I-League trophy.
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/I-League)

The Merger: Right Idea, Wrong Implementation

The proposed merger of the ISL and I-league, mooted and discussed throughout 2016, has still not made headway. Additionally, the withdrawal of legacy clubs such as Salgaocar FC, Dempo SC, Sporting Clube de Goa left a sour taste.

Bengaluru FC found a place in the ISL but it is a shame that East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have not been able to do the same. Input costs aside, the Goan and the Kolkata bigwigs didn’t subscribe to the unified competition due to clauses disallowing promotion/relegation during the initial years post-merger.

Aizawl FC – 2016/17 I-league champions – were staring down an abyss when the merger was proposed. They weren’t invited to be part of the new set-up; instead, the national champions had to remain content with plying their trade in the second division.

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The Need For One Multi-tiered League

The idea of a single league with the merger of ISL and I-league made a lot of sense to players and fans alike. The issue was the structure and the set-up, involving inclusion of all eight current ISL clubs, with a provision to bring in only 2-3 additional teams. There would be no relegation/promotion for the first few years due to sponsorship clauses with ISL backers.

This is a slap on the face of the I-league after producing so many players who went on to play for the national team. That is in itself hard evidence of grassroots-level development yielding tangible results. Its template needs to be combined with the marketing and promotion strategy of the ISL, supported by media and TV coverage.

From a marketing standpoint, a single league will help avoid cannibalism of audiences, while a simultaneous I-league and ISL could be detrimental to both. The duration of the league needs to be extended. The ISL was played from October-December while the I-league spanned January-May.

Nita Ambani poses for a photograph with Indian football players at the ISL draft in Mumbai on Sunday.
Nita Ambani poses for a photograph with Indian football players at the ISL draft in Mumbai on Sunday.
(Photo: ISL)

Instead of this fractured set-up, a unified league is essential to ensure football is played throughout the year. It will provide ample game time and much-needed exposure to all players involved. A league with multiple tiers should be set up, while allowing for a reasonable number of teams in the top flight.

A multi-tiered competition, including 20 teams, will allow in some of the legacy clubs, while providing chances to a larger group of players in the first division. Promotion-relegation should be effective immediately or from the second season onwards. Else, it is financially unsustainable for smaller clubs competing against the might of foreign sponsors of the biggies.

The number of foreign players involved in each team must be restricted. Instead of bringing in semi-retired professionals from Europe, the focus must be on developing as many local players as possible.

The Verdict

The concept of a single league is not new in world football; countries where the sport is played professionally already follow the format.

Seeing how it has historically benefited national teams (for example, Germany) and helped develop a keen fan following, the AIFF should adopt it as a model approach to be rolled out in India.

It is a proven way to develop football among youth in the country, providing them a platform to showcase their potential and sharpen their talent while ensuring financial security/monetary rewards.

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(Maya Mahadevan is currently a freelancer, who hopes to carve a niche for herself in the world of journalism – through sports writing or storytelling. Football and tennis are her joint first-love. She also has an interest in hockey and badminton. A financial analyst by profession (engineering followed by an MBA), her other areas of interest include travelling, listening to music and reading. The writer can be reached at @mayamahadevan)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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