- 2017: A year to remember for Indian football
Dato Windsor stands outside the Asian Football Confederation headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, flanked on either side by All India Football Federation president Praful Patel and its secretary Kushal Das. The mood is solemn for the AFC general secretary has an announcement that will shake Indian football down to its very core. One country, one league, he says, is AFC’s avowed policy. India too must comply, he announces. Or risk being cast out.
In Kolkata, celebrations spark out, but in Delhi, huddled discussions start. Does AFC even have the power to expel someone? Someone points out that FIFA won’t risk such a stunt with just months left for India to host the U-17 World Cup. But then, a second hammer-blow, in as many days, arrives. A letter from FIFA proclaiming solidarity with AFC’s decision telling the AIFF to sort out its affairs or risk expulsion. England has expressed willingness to replace India as the U-17 World Cup hosts. They’ve also expressed willingness to host if Russia is replaced as 2018 World Cup hosts. And Qatar in 2022. #AIFFScrewedUp and #OneLeague start trending.
Top AIFF honchos immediately fly out to Mumbai to enter into hushed discussions with their marketing partners, who also happen to run the ISL. Then top AIFF and IMG-R honchos fly back to Delhi to enter into hushed discussions with ISL clubs and I-League franchises. In Kolkata, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal issue a joint statement saying they won’t be paying any franchise fees as they’re both really old. #LegacyClubs trends on Twitter. Down south, Chennai City FC comes up with the same argument and claims they too are half a century old. Nothing trends.
ISL, I-League merged
There’s just a couple of weeks left for the World Cup draw and a FIFA sanction appears imminent. Then IMG-R steps up and saves the day. Outside the AIFF headquarters, ISL officials, flanked by Patel and Das, announce a new expanded league. Eight ISL teams will be joined by the top five teams from last year’s I-League season. The I-League qualifiers won’t have to pay an entrance fee but will have to provide a bank guarantee showing they have enough funds to see the season through and meet ISL standards. There is a caveat as well. Two of those five will be relegated at the end of the season with two from I-League division two coming up. The eight ISL franchises are exempt from relegation for the next ten years. All of a sudden, Indian football’s social media doesn’t have anything to complain about. Aizawl FC is in, Kolkata clubs are in, Bengaluru FC is in and there is promotion/relegation. On Twitter, #PlaySahaDropDhoni trends.
Not everyone is happy though. Amar Tomar Kolkata suddenly find they have to share the city with two other, very established teams. A visibly unhappy Sanjeev Goenka abruptly announces his decision to disband ATK and sue ISL for breach of contract. ATK officials urgently fly down to Mumbai to hold talks with their ISL counterparts. After the meeting, a smiling Goenka comes out and announces he has settled with IMG-R. He issues a statement saying the trophy belongs to Kolkata and hopes one of East Bengal or Mohun Bagan wins the league next year. #ThankYouATK trends on Twitter.
He’s not the only one who’s not unhappy. Minerva Punjab FC attempt to trend #MinervaInISL. It receives 14 retweets, including one from the club, two from the co-owners and one from this correspondent.
Then comes more happy news for Indian football. At the World Cup draw, Praful Patel gets all his facts right. The draw itself pits India against New Zealand, Turkey and Niger. It’s almost as if FIFA decided to reward AIFF for sorting itself out. That India — fresh from beating the Italy U-17 side — will qualify from that group is a foregone conclusion. Experts on news channels debate who India could face in the quarters. Komal Thatal is linked to Manchester United.But there is trouble in paradise. It turns out the all I-League clubs except Bengaluru FC and Shillong Lajong have problems furnishing the bank guarantee. Aizawl FC, as defending champions and the toast of Indian football, threaten to fast unto death if they are excluded from the ISL. Then help arrives in the unlikliest of forms. Aamir Khan swoops down and buys the club. A couple of days later, reports emerge that Aamir was actually trying to buy the movie rights to Aizawl’s fairytale season, but found that buying the club was cheaper. Pretty soon, said movie is announced. Aamir himself will play Khalid Jamil, while Riteish Deshmukh will play Brandon Vanlalremdika. The make-up team behind the Mary Kom movie is roped in.Not to be left behind, Shah Rukh Khan finally closes protracted discussions to buy East Bengal. Almost at the same time, Salman Khan announces the purchase of Dabang Delhi. Two days later, he finds out it’s not a football team.
With the deadline to furnish a bank guarantee running out, Mohun Bagan find themselves in a spot of bother. #Legacy starts trending on Twitter again. Enter another unlikely saviour. Sourav Ganguly forgets the bitterness of losing Atletico de Kolkata and announces his investment in the club he supported as a boy. #ThankYouDada trends on Twitter.The season is nearing and ISL officials circulate a memo that only teams with a celebrity face will be on the poster. Bengaluru rope in Rahul Dravid and Delhi Dynamos sign Jacqueline Fernandes. Everyone’s happy. No one really notices that Shillong Lajong is not on the poster.
FC Goa fires the first shot in terms of recruitment by retaining Zico for a fourth season. United fan Ganguly beats Kerala Blasters to Rene Meulensteen while Steve Coppell goes to East Bengal. The Blasters have to settle for Mike Phelan. #Phelanammavan starts trending on Twitter.
Player recruitment goes reasonably well and clubs seem to have learnt from the mistakes of the past. Except Blasters who’ve signed Dimitar Berbatov, John O’Shea and Wes Brown. Later, a club official privately admits they did not know that the marquee player rule had been done away with. With the clubs playing each other in friendlies, it becomes apparent that Lajong, headed by a young Spaniard named Sergio Lobera, are head and shoulders above everyone else.
Meanwhile, the U-17 World Cup starts and everyone forgets about the ISL. For a week. India lose all three matches and are knocked out faster than you can say ‘Luis Norton de Matos’. They do score a goal though, off a corner against Niger.Meanwhile Star Sports starts airing a set of rather cringeworthy promos for the ISL. They borrow heavily from Indian football lore, largely abandoning their earlier stance that there was no football in the country before 2013. Ganguly is seen watching a clip of Mohun Bagan beating East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911. Someone politely points out that there were no cameras back then, but is instantly shouted down. Shah Rukh and East Bengal players dance to a remixed version of Korbo Lorbo Jeetbo. Sachin Tendulkar, Aamir, Abhishek Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan (because if the Khans are in, he ain’t going anywhere) feature heavily in the ads. Lajong doesn’t feature. No one cares.
Everyone’s all set for the grand ISL opener in Kochi. Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif are scheduled, but IMG-R takes into account regional sensitivities and include Sunny Leone.Then, with a couple of weeks left for the league to start, the Delhi High Court rules on a PIL filed by sports lawyer Rahul Mehra and set aside the election of AIFF president Praful Patel and installs an administrator. AIFF appeals in the SC, but it’s rejected. A day before the ISL is scheduled to start, AIFF receives a letter from FIFA. It has been suspended due to third-party interference.
(The above article is a piece of satire and is not intended to offend anyone. It should be taken in the right spirit.)