AIFF Intent on Restructuring Indian Football, But Road Ahead Remains Unclear
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) confirmed that they are looking to restructure India’s domestic football leagues on Monday yet the road to a unified league system including clubs from the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League won’t be an easy one.
Representatives of all the I-League teams at the launch of the 12th edition in New Delhi. (AIFF Image)
Ahead of the 2017/18 edition of the I-League, the biggest talking point among fans and experts alike was the fact that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had decided to keep the Indian football team that featured in the FIFA U-17 World Cup together as the ‘Indian Arrows’ in a bid to further develop the burgeoning talents.
Yet perhaps the biggest elephant in the room – the fact that the I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL) would be running simultaneously for the first time ahead of a major restructure of the domestic football system – was not addressed at the time.
One year later and with the potential threat of an Asian ban looming should they fail to unify the two leagues by the 2019/20 season, the AIFF unsurprisingly chose to address the issue head on.
“Let us look at the bigger picture. We are talking about restructuring the league and we have a holistic plan for that where we are going to take all the leagues into account and make a better league structure so that India can perform better internationally,” AIFF senior vice-president Subrata Dutta said at the I-League launch in New Delhi on Tuesday.
Yet while it was refreshing to hear that the AIFF were finally looking to merge the two domestic leagues, there are a number of issues that must be addressed before the huge decision is finally taken.
Earlier this year, news broke of a FIFA-backed report that suggested an Asian ban for Indian clubs should they fail to come up with a unified league by the next season.
The report was refuted by AIFF general secretary Kushal Das, who stated that he was yet to receive any report from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and that a decision will be taken in due course.
However, coming up with a new system will be complicated to say the least considering the fact that an arrangement currently exists that sees the ISL clubs get a 10-year immunity from relegation from 2014 onwards.
Even though the FIFA report called for a review of that and some other arrangements, there is every possibility that it could be upheld even after it is evaluated by the necessary authorities.
This would mean that ISL clubs will not be relegated from 2019-23 while I-League clubs will be both promoted and relegated as the report stated that the new league must become a 16-team tournament by 2023.
More tellingly, this arrangement will see the majority of the I-League clubs – which include legacy sides like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan among others – excluded from the new merged league, at least in the initial stages.
For his part, Dutta stated that it would be unwise to view the leagues individually as the plan was to eventually freshen up the whole domestic league system in India.
“We should not analyse just one league. We should include ISL, we should include I-League and we should include age-group leagues as well as think about the second division league since they all add value to football in our country,” Dutta said.
Yet to not view the ISL and I-League as separate entities given the differing natures of both tournaments is something of an exercise in futility.
One league has been in existence for only five years and has massive financial backing whereas the other began in 1996 as the National Football League and features some of India’s most successful clubs yet has never had the kind of exposure the new league did.
There’s also the fact that I-League clubs tend to enjoy better in-stadium attendance, something the ISL has struggled with especially after the league began to run for longer than two months.
Including the ISL clubs in the revamped league structure makes sense given the amount of money that has been invested in them, yet a truly holistic approach will be needed if the benefits of the reforms are to be enjoyed by all Indian clubs.
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