This is a big year for Indian football. The country will host the Under-17 World Cup and take part in an event of this stature for the first time. Football’s governing body FIFA had long ago branded India a ‘sleeping giant’. Come October, the world will see if India has woken up—in terms of organisational ability, providing quality infrastructure and the market to encourage and sustain such activities. India currently ranks 100th in the world. This is our best ranking in about 25 years, but this is still below expectations.
It is rare for a country to not have a well-defined domestic structure and still make a mark at the world level. India is in a state of confusion over its domestic structure, over what to embrace and discard. With the Indian Super League (ISL) drawing sponsors, quality players and spectators, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), along with its marketing partner, is intent on portraying it as its premier competition. It is a tough call because it is practically equivalent to killing the existing domestic event, the I-League, which generates minuscule returns in almost everything. But it is a decision that has to be taken, as otherwise, things are headed nowhere.
The process of making ISL India's recognised league in the FIFA umbrella is complicated and involves several mandatory stipulations, like clubs having own funds, infrastructure, development programmes and well-defined administrative structures. The I-League clubs have just finished that process. To get the ISL which has none of the above to start the process is something the AIFF must do, if it is to become its premier event. Talking about a new structure before starting these operations amounts to swimming before learning how to walk.
This situation is not like cricket’s IPL, which is a money-spinner with a separate and independent first-class structure taking care of development. Unless this is sorted out, India has to hide its dark underbelly while hosting a landmark event.