Set to be relegated to the second tier of Indian football for no fault of their own, I-League clubs now regret investing for the long term. Vishnu Prasad tells the story of a handful of clubs and their owners who are going through an existential crisis
Kuala Lumpur is where it’ll likely be decided. On Tuesday, at the Asian Football Confederation offices, the All India Football Federation, hand-in-hand with their parent body, will present a roadmap that will define Indian football. In attendance will be the various stakeholders — representatives of I-League and Indian Super League clubs. It is yet too early to say what exactly this roadmap will entail, but a lot of the I-League representatives expect one thing — official confirmation that their clubs have all been relegated en masse to the second tier.
Twenty-three years after the AIFF declared open the National Football League, its successor is set to lose its status as the country’s top flight. And there will be no way for any of the clubs concerned to regain that status, except bid for a franchise like all ISL clubs. For many of these I-League clubs, that is not an option. A lot of them are passion projects of individuals — champions Chennai City’s Rohit Ramesh, Gokulam Kerala’s VC Praveen, Minerva Punjab’s Ranjit Bajaj, Aizawl FC’s Robert Royte and Real Kashmir’s Shamim Mehraj and Sandeep Chattoo. Their passion sure runs deep enough, but their pockets don’t.
Optimistic observers might suggest that status quo will more or less be maintained — the more high-profile ISL had the better players, more money and better coverage, yet the I-League still found a way to survive in the shadow. But how the league has been handled this year suggests otherwise. ISL clubs got their fixtures a month ago but there is still no clarity over when the I-League will start. While the AIFF has always maintained otherwise, multiple team owners confide privately that they’re not sure there will even be a league this year.
The most unfortunate part of the story is that the I-League is about to be buried just when it was starting to spark to life. In 2012-13, the last season before the ISL was launched, the league looked amateurish and was hamstrung by being limited to a few select pockets. There were four teams each from West Bengal, Goa and Maharashtra, and two from the rest of the country. That same season, Mohun Bagan had refused to turn up for the second half of Kolkata derby, an act for which the AIFF initially handed them a two-season ban, before hastily taking a step back.
But over the next five years, a tale of unexpected redemption was told. Clubs started springing up from all sorts of unfancied places and a generation of owners who grew up watching how well-run European football was started running their teams in a more professional way. Bengaluru FC started housing their players in swanky hotels and signing them on to multi-year contracts — the prospect of Sunil Chhetri playing for the same club for six years straight would have been ridiculed a decade ago. Aizawl showed everyone how to win a title with a mix of local youngsters and properly-scouted foreign players, a formula that Minerva Punjab and Chennai City adopted with great success.
With teams from the north, the south, the east and the north-east taking titles over the last five seasons, the I-League finally looked like a national league. Chennai and Shillong Lajong even pioneered a new business model, making sure their youngsters were signed to long-term contracts and selling them on for a big profit.If everybody didn’t already know what was coming, they might even have remarked that the future looked bright. A terminally ill patient appears to have made a miraculous recovery. But the euthanisation is happening anyway.
“I have been paying my players for six months of pre-season,” says Rohit, whose club is likely the last I-League winners to be champions of the country. “I don’t think there is another country in the world where the off-season lasts six months.” Perhaps no better statement captures the muddle I-League team owners find themselves in, right now.
At the turn of the decade, as Indian football hovered around in the bottom third of the FIFA rankings table, one of the maladies diagnosed was the failure of I-League clubs to have a long-term strategy. Even the biggest in the business — East Bengal and Mohun Bagan — signed players to contracts that ran out in months, spent resources on vampirising rival squads, did not bother to bring through their own players and often had multiple managers over the course of a season. But now, as a handful of clubs adopt practices that are the norm at the global level, the way AIFF has handled the I-League is ensuring that they’re ruing their decision to do so.
Take Chennai City for example. They usually tie down most of their best players to long-term contracts. At another club, a Pedro Manzi, who top-scored in the league last year, would have walked off somewhere more lucrative for free. But the confusion over the whens and whats means they’re paying their players for nothing. Even as they’re set to go from champions of India to second-tier club in a few short months, Rohit wishes he had known for sure earlier.
“If they had told us earlier that the I-League was going to be second division just after last season ended, we would have prepared for it in a very different manner,” he says. “I would have sold a lot of players and gone into the season with local youngsters. Instead, with the AFC Cup coming up as well, I have tied down all my best players to long-term deals.”The same grievances are aired by Gokulam Kerala FC, another club who invested heavily this season in the hope of becoming India’s top-flight champions.
They sent their players on a detailed pre-season programme that included the Durand Cup, the AWES Cup in Goa and friendlies against Bengaluru FC and Chennaiyin FC. “We have given long-term contracts to players,” says Praveen, who is the club’s president. “We have invited foreign players showing that this is the topmost league in the country. If AIFF suddenly changes the stature of the league, it will lead to a breach of contract between us and players.
“The uncertainty has hit us badly,” he continues. “It was said to us that the league will start in November. But till now, we have not received any fixtures and telecast details. These sponsors, whom we approach, follow football very much and know the current situation in Indian football. When we approach them they are asking about the telecast details and fixtures, which we do not have. Compared to last season, we have a drastic decrease in the number of sponsorships deals.”
Fight or give up?
When the I-League does get downgraded — at this point, the question really is when and not if — what happens then? How do the clubs react to it?
A bunch of clubs have already reacted to the changing of winds, over the past five years. In 2015, Pune FC, one of the better-run I-League clubs at that point, ceased operations. A year later, Dempo SC — five-time national champions — announced their withdrawal to the Goan leagues. Shillong Lajong too looks to be going down that path after fielding a fully local side in the I-League last season and finishing even below the AIFF’s developmental team Indian Arrows.
There have been reports that the big two — East Bengal and Mohun Bagan — have held talks to see if they can jump ship to the ISL, much like Bengaluru did a couple of years ago. The rest, though, seems destined to languish in whatever the I-League is reduced to, till the men pumping in money run out of it.
Unless of course, they find a sustainable financial model. Without significant television revenue or sponsorship, it would seem that a model where they minimise costs and find income from developing and selling players would be the way forward. That, though, is easier said than done.
“It is a model but we don’t know yet if it is sustainable,” says Rohit, who brings up how well this league would be telecast as the main impediment in such a scenario. “Without proper telecast, how can there be a proper valuation for my players? When somebody wants one of my players now, we arrive at a price based on how the player performed last season, that everyone saw on TV. If it’s not being telecast properly, then the valuation of the player will fall naturally.”
It is a problem that irks Praveen as well. “When the telecast rights of the league are with an entity that owns another league, we can understand how much interest they have in promoting I-League,” he says.
He, though, maintains that, even if the outcome is adverse, their fight would last long beyond the Tuesday meeting. “We will fight for our rights till the end,” he says. “Even if AIFF or AFC says they will make I-League the second league, we will fight. We want to fight because justice is with us. Several I-League clubs have closed because of this.
“If the AIFF does not show any value to the I-League and the clubs, then what will be the situation of the second division clubs in the country? There are several football players who are playing in non-ISL clubs. What will happen to them? They were not even able to have live streaming for the second division (last year). Where are they heading to?”
There are other questions too that need to be thought about. If the I-League dies, where will the players come from? The number of players who’ve secured ISL contracts on the back of their I-League displays over the last few years are numerous — Jobby Justin, Nandha Kumar, Michael Soosairaj — are but a few examples. In the event this system breaks down, can Indian football afford to wait it out, till a replacement is put in place?
The answers to those questions may have to be found out the hard way.
If the I-League does lose its top-flight status, this will be the first time in 23 years, since the first season of the National Football League was played out, that India’s top-flight will have neither promotion or relegation.
Last year’s I-League season was played out across ten different states, making it the most extensive edition of the tournament since its inception in 2007.