A confusing roadmap

Football

HEADED NOWHERE: A slice of action from the Real Kashmir-Mohun Bagan contest in the I-League last season. PTI

It has been a season of some great football, good stories and a clutch of forgettable episodes. Granted, the same terms could be used for any of the last few seasons but there seems to be something deeper this time.

After years spent procrastinating trying to find the right balance in the country’s leagues, the All India Football Federation is yet to find it, as evidenced by the continued bickering between the federation and the clubs in the I-League.

From a different perspective, things look bright. In the past few years, India have hosted a World Cup (U-17) and are poised to host another. The national team has improved its rankings and put in a good performance at the Asian Cup, and we even have a FIFA council member for the first time.

A closer look reveals the cracks. The primary one is the two leagues, running concurrently -- and bizarrely -- with the blessing of the AFC. Indeed, the domestic structure is in doldrums, with the clubs increasingly in an uncertain domain. Recently, the I-League teams took a stand to boycott the Super Cup in an attempt to put pressure on the federation into meeting them to discuss the future.

While they received assurance on that count, the meeting never took place and with the I-League teams showing a united front, it was a damp end to the domestic season. With the AIFF secretary Kushal Das blaming the clubs for ‘rebelling’ the future looks bleaker. 

“Before the Super Cup we asked to meet the president and they said he was busy. After the qualifying matches got over they gave a date. Had they given the date first itself we would have played the qualifying rounds,” says VC Praveen, the president of Gokulam Kerala FC, one of the teams that boycotted the Super Cup.

“Then (when) we said we are prepared to play, they said it’s not possible. At the same time, they said Minerva and Real Kashmir should replay (their I-League match which was abandoned). They have different rules for different things.”

Former I-League champions Minerva Punjab’s owner Ranjit Bajaj echoed the same thoughts. “The letter they sent, had it come two days before, nothing like this would have happened. We would have all played. We were all there -- Gokulam, Minerva and Aizawl -- and if we had no intention of playing then why would we?” he asked. 

That the I-League is in an unenviable position at the moment is undeniable. The Indian Super League has the backing of the federation and it is prospering. The long-talked about merger seem some distance away. And it is the lack of vision on the federation’s part that is harming the I-League clubs more than anything else.

“Is there a merger or is I-League continuing? Is I-League going to be demoted to second division? ISL does not have promotion and relegation so what’s the point in I-League being a second division? No one has clarity. We grew up watching Salgaocar, Dempo and clubs like that, ones with legacies, but they closed down because of these issues. They did it to be an eye-opener for Indian football. Now Minerva and NEROCA have also threatened the same but still no meeting. This is the attitude of AIFF,” Praveen remarks.

Defending champions Chennai City FC owner Rohit Ramesh says: “We are in a situation where we have to wait and watch. I’m certain AIFF will get back to us soon. Whatever is in front of us we have to face it. I’m guessing, considering the federation will not let go of the I-League clubs, that prominence will be given to us next season as well. I’m certain that come what may, they will meet us. It’s election time after all.” 

While many might not have the same optimism as Ramesh, the lack of clarity is affecting the planning for the next season as the clubs are in limbo about the budget, competition and even sponsors. Television coverage is another vital aspect, especially after the bitter experience last season when the I-League telecast was reduced for the second half without warning. While the AIFF had little to do with that decision themselves, they are not above blame.

“They ended up telecasting 60 per cent of the matches in the end,” Praveen stresses. “So again they went back on their word and the sponsors also went back saying there is no telecast and how do we gain in this? So we have to wait and watch. We need to start the pre-season by July-end or August first week.

“It’s high time we started looking for players, both Indian and foreign, but without clarity how do we do it? And because we can’t plan, the quality of football will also come down,” he opined adding that sponsors would rather invest in Pro Kabaddi League where they are assured of value for money.

Ramesh and Chennai City are however in a different boat. Having qualified for the AFC Champions League playoff spot, they need to prepare a strong team that can make a mark beyond the Indian league. Meanwhile, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, two of India’s most storied clubs, are surrounded by rumours of them moving to the ISL.

While the I-League clubs contemplate their next moves, the situation of the Second Division clubs -- who are battling for promotion to the I-League --  remains an even more confusing story. Ozone Bengaluru FC, TRAU, Chhinga Veng and Lonestar Kashmir are set to play the semifinals in their attempt to gain promotion.

“We are also in a dilemma regarding the promotion from the second division to I-league,” reveals Phulem Meitei, CEO of TRAU, from Manipur. “We are not certain whether we will be promoted to the first or second division, or if the second division will become the third division.” 

With a team made largely of local talent and financial muscle akin to NEROCA, Meitei feels his side should be able to stick around in the I-League should they gain promotion but is keeping a close watch on what the future holds.

“Our motto is to promote football in our region and we have been doing that for the past 10 years in Manipur. If the situation becomes not conducive for the growth of football then we might take extreme actions. We have Manipur state league and we can concentrate on that because we need certain support for the team from the AIFF,” he remarked.

The North-East has been a strong pillar of Indian football, with their production line steeped in the local leagues. The AIFF just cannot turn a blind eye to their issues.

“We are just going with the flow now. Suppose if we get promoted to I-league and we are still in the second division, then there is no point,” Thanzama, general secretary of Chheng Veng, says. 

“No one is sure of the road map but if we qualify for I-League and then it becomes the second division, something will be done, I’m not sure what. If we don’t qualify for I-League and AIFF is changing its structure and we continue in the second -- now the third division -- then there is no point playing. We will continue to play the local league, concentrate on producing players,” he added.

For long, the federation has walked on eggshells regarding the future. Perhaps, the time has come for the final flourish. So is there a facelift on the way for the house of cards that is Indian football? If at all it comes, it would put the I-League clubs out of their misery.

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