The Hindu Explains: India’s federalism, China’s currency war and ISL-I-League fight

What is the fight between the ISL and I-League about?

The story so far: The long-running battle for one-upmanship between the I-League, India’s top rung of football, and the glitzy Indian Super League (ISL), launched five years ago, is nearing a messy endgame. The All-India Football Federation (AIFF), the sport’s governing body, has recommended to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) that the ISL be recognised as the country’s top tier. But I-League clubs, including giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, are miffed as the coveted spot in the AFC Champions League qualifiers, given to the I-League winners, will now be the ISL’s. And with the latter having no system of promotion-relegation, the clubs feel they are being denied a fair opportunity to compete for a slot among Asia’s elite.

What is the genesis of the tussle?

In 2010, the AIFF signed a Master Rights Agreement (MRA) with IMG-Reliance (IMG-R) that granted the latter control over footballing activities in India for 15 years. The ISL, a closed affair modelled on famed American professional leagues such as the NBA and the NFL, was borne out of a tie-up between the AIFF and the Football Sports Development Ltd. (FSDL), a subsidiary of IMG-R. Armed with funds, ISL attracted top, albeit over the hill, foreign stars, including World Cup winners, and threatened the existence of the I-League. The AIFF president, Praful Patel, an AFC vice-president and FIFA Council member, sought to assuage fears by terming the introduction of the new tournament as more of a “booster dose” to develop Indian football than a disruptive influence.

Unlike the rebel Indian Cricket League which preceded the IPL, the ISL enjoyed official sanction, creating a unique situation of a country having two professional leagues.

In May 2016, the AIFF and the FSDL revealed a grand plan to completely overhaul the structure, starting from the 2017-18 season. The ISL was to be made the premier division, I-League a step below as League 1, followed by League 2. There could only be promotion and relegation between League 1 and League 2. The ISL clubs could not be relegated (for the first 10 seasons) and new teams could only be added as per the league’s wishes and subject to the payment of a hefty franchise fee. But since I-League clubs were not agreeable, the AIFF and other stakeholders decided to run both leagues concurrently, with the I-League holding on to the AFC Champions League slot, until a clear road map could be established through consensus. But the move to place the ISL above I-League has not gone down well.

Why has there been this turn by the AIFF?

On July 9, the AIFF Executive Committee announced that the elevation of the ISL had to happen within five years of its inception as per contractual obligations in the MRA. Among other reasons the AIFF cited was the “fact that the entire Indian National squad was being signed by/playing for the ISL clubs”. It also felt that the ISL clubs should be rewarded for complying with the AFC club-licensing criteria that includes grass-roots and youth development programmes. The AIFF claimed that television viewership and in-stadia audience had grown far more substantially vis-à-vis the Hero I-League. The AIFF also appeared to have been irked by the I-League clubs’ boycott of the Super Cup in March (except Real Kashmir and Chennai City FC) demanding a meeting with Mr. Patel amid reports that the ISL was all set to be granted top status.

In a last ditch effort, I-League representatives sought the Prime Minister’s intervention to probe the AIFF’s functioning.

What do I-League outfits have to say?

Their biggest grouse has been non-transparency on the AIFF’s part. Even as they agree somewhat grudgingly that the AIFF’s intentions to promote the ISL had all along been clear, they allege that the exact terms of the MRA and time frames were never revealed. The argument being that, had they known, a club such as Minerva Punjab, which started playing at the national level only from 2015-16, would have thought twice about investing just to feature in the lower divisions. There is also a strong feeling that I-League clubs have been left to die a slow death. In 2016, protesting the lack of vision, Dempo FC, Salgaocar FC and Sporting Clube de Goa — three Goan clubs with rich history — pulled out of the I-League. The AIFF did little to convince them otherwise. The increase in stadia and television audiences can be attributed to the fact that the ISL matches had prime-time late evening slots, while the I-League, alongside reduced airtime, saw many matches scheduled on weekday afternoons. It was only natural that top players, with better chances of being noticed, flocked to the ISL, thereby making it a better product. But things are not all rosy in the ISL. The excitement of the initial years has dissipated as clubs such as Delhi Dynamos and FC Pune City have struggled to attract fans. It is a fact that East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have fan bases far bigger than the most popular ISL clubs.

Where does the issue stand and what next for I-League teams?

Six I-League clubs, namely Minerva Punjab, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Churchill Brothers, Aizawl FC and Gokulam Kerala FC, petitioned FIFA. The world body wrote back to the AIFF asking for an update on a February 2018 report prepared in collaboration with the AFC. The report had instructed the AIFF to run a unified league with promotion and relegation from 2019-20, and also reduce franchise fees and review and reset all agreements signed with FSDL. A ‘League Transition Committee’ was to be formed within six weeks of the AIFF receiving the report; a failure to comply could result in suspension from AFC competitions. That the AIFF dodged the bullet for nearly 18 months, and even convinced FIFA that many aspects of the report needed further consideration, can be termed a mini victory. In fact, FIFA has now asked the clubs to cooperate with the AIFF as the latter was “best-placed” to find a solution to “complex issues”. If the AIFF now goes ahead and elevates the ISL, the matter may finally be decided in the country’s courts.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2021 8:15:44 PM |

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