Domestic football needs a relook

The second edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) concluded with a fiery finale in Goa last Sunday, leaving a clutch of bright moments and a bagful of questions in its wake. The unsavoury scenes at the final whistle – FC Goa, beaten by Chennaiyin FC in the title decider, boycotting the presentation ceremony – is an issue for the nascent league’s disciplinary panel to tackle. The larger picture concerns the impact of the league on the country’s football, a scenario that needs a hard look from the sport’s governing body – the All India Football Federation. As in its inaugural season, the second edition of the ISL succeeded in generating plenty of hype around the game, bringing in fans by the numbers to the stadiums across the country and drawing big numbers on television. At the same time, doubts that surfaced during the first edition — about the league being a temporary mask that hides the ailing state of football in the country — got reinforced over the last two months.

The real status of the Indian game is in stark contrast to the colourful pictures beamed to the drawing rooms, with the national team unable to make an impact at the international level, and the country’s clubs – the lifeline of the sport in any strong footballing nation – struggling for survival. Worse is the plight of the I-League, the national league, which has been on a downward spiral for the last few years. The Brazilian legend Zico, who coached FC Goa, expressed it perfectly when he remarked that the league, with its small window and over-reliance on foreign talent, won’t benefit Indian football in any way. With each team allowed to field six foreigners in a given game, it hardly leaves any space for Indian talent to break through in many key positions. And once the league winds up, the Indian players who are not part of the I-League clubs are left with little to do for the rest of the season.

Also of great concern is the dwindling fortunes of the I-League. Unable to spread its wings wide, the league is staring at an uncertain future, thanks to the lackadaisical attitude of the parent body. The decision of Pune FC, Bharat FC and Royal Wahingdoh to pull out of the competition highlights the plight of the clubs. The AIFF has floated a plan to merge the two leagues, stating that is the only way forward, but there has been no clarity on the matter even as the new I-League season is about to kick off. Meanwhile, like flowerpots in Diwali season, ISL flourishes and fades away, leaving smoke and little else behind.

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