Dear Mrs. Nita Ambani,
here are two reasons why I decided to forgo my cherished winter-morning sleep today and pen down this letter: firstly, to thank you for your endeavour, and no doubt great amount of funding, to bring football to the cricket-loving masses of this nation; secondly, to bring to your knowledge the questions which the football-loving Indian fans have on their minds.
I am writing this letter, not only as someone who has been following the game since Roberto Baggio mesmerized me with his skills, and that godly ponytail, in the 1994 World Cup, but also as an insider, as someone who has had the good fortune of working with the ISL crew in its inaugural season. It was an experience that will last my lifetime. To wake up each morning at some of the biggest hotels in India and stand behind your childhood idols like Alessandro del Piero and Robert Pires, in the queue for a cheese omelette at breakfast – stuff fans dream about, and I had lived it – all of course funded by IMG.
The grandeur of the production did catch everyone's attention; in terms of production value, ISL is the best football tournament India has ever had. The celebrities, fireworks, glamorous hosts, glossy studios, experienced commentators like John Helm; It is fair to say that IMG-Reliance and Star TV have rendered a television experience Indian football fans have only seen in the European leagues. (Read: Romeo and Football – time to rescript a happy story)
But as you must know, amidst the glitz your team seems to have missed on one small detail – the other stuff that takes place on the pitch.
On the Indian Super League website, you have left a wonderfully composed message as the chairperson of the league. “In building the Indian Super League we have committed to propel Indian football to its rightful place – with Indian talent, facilities, passion and ambition to reach the very pinnacle of the game,” it reads.
As you are aware, the Indian national team is also part of the 'Indian football' which ISL is committed to propel to its rightful place. As someone who is so invested in Indian football, you surely would have kept tabs on our national team's plight at the World Cup Qualifiers, and do understand how much importance these matches hold – not because India would have qualified for the world's biggest footballing event – sadly, India is not ready for that yet - but because it held the key for India's chances of participating in the 2019 Asia Cup. (Read: Lallianzuala Chhangte – ‘the new kid on the block in Indian football’)
Yet, the ISL organizers refused to release the national team players for a preparatory camp ahead of India's matches against Turkmenistan and Oman. Both these nations are higher ranked than India. It would have been tough to get a result even with adequate preparation, and without preparations, the results were inevitable. (Read: From auto-driver to ISL star– the story of Anas Edathodika)
Of course, FIFA's rules suggest that a club is bound to release a player for an international match four days before it is scheduled, but the humour lies in the fact that ISL is not a FIFA or AFC approved league. But I do not mean to question whether an unrecognised league should have the authority to prevent players from preparing for something as huge as the World Cup Qualifiers. I merely intend to ascertain that this decision by ISL is in line with your 'commitment to propel Indian football to its rightful place'?
You have also said, and rightly so, “The objective of sustainable long-term development can only be achieved by working in unison with the entire Indian footballing firmament”. You would agree that I-League and its clubs are also part of the 'Indian footballing firmament'. These clubs, most of which have history that we as a nation can be proud of, are fighting for their survival today.
Of course, a lot of their current predicament is attributable to the AIFF's miserable governance over the years, bureaucracy and politics within club administrators and lack of interest among corporates to sponsor any other sports than cricket. Perhaps it is easy for some to point fingers at ISL for this current situation, but the seeds of this problem were sown long time back.
I was born in a family which supports East Bengal; it is a legacy that has been passed down from by grandfather, to my father, to me. I still cherish memories of watching matches at the Salt Lake Stadium with my uncle as a kid, in my tiny red and yellow jersey; and I am just one of millions.
Mohammedan Sporting, a 124-year old, is struggling to survive. Pune FC, one of the most professionally set-up clubs, have closed down their first team operations, Bharat FC have withdrawn after just one season, and Royal Wahingdoh, who made an exciting debut in I-League last season, have withdrawn citing 'lack of clarity on I-League's future'.
It is clear that both I-League and ISL cannot survive individually and they must be unified. Yet, when you were asked in a recent interview with ToI about the possibility of a 'One League', you elegantly side-stepped it saying, “We will take one step at a time and building a football culture in this country is a long gestation project and we are fully committed to it”.
These I-League clubs might not survive this gestation period, and if they do go out of existence, football will lose millions of fans. An East Bengal or Mohun Bagan fan will not start supporting Atletico de Kolkata, just because the former ceases to exist. (Read: From Engineering dropout to Indian Football star – the rise of Eugeneson Lyngdoh)
What the I-League fans deserve from you right now, is a statement of assurance, which I am sure someone with your love for football will understand. If you could take some time out and surf through a few Indian football forums, I am sure you will get to know the undercurrent of discontent that is building up among the fans in this nation. (Read: Save Indian football from being taken hostage: ISL Match Commissioner)
AIFF's ineptitude must not have gone unnoticed by you, which is why India is perhaps the only nation where a corporate body, and not the governing body of that sports, runs the domestic league. English Premier League is sponsored by Barclays, and run by FA, ISL is both sponsored and organized by IMG-R.
In hindsight though, it was a good idea to take AIFF completely out of the equation. It allowed someone like Shrinivas Dempo, who is the vice-president of AIFF, to be the co-owner of ISL club FC Goa – another unprecedented case. It is also perhaps why someone like Bhaichung Bhutia, who is the chairman of AIFF's technical committee, can be a consultant with ISL club Atletico de Kolkata. I am confident that you would have made sure that there is no conflict of interest in these cases.
Since you are striving to uplift Indian football to the levels of professionalism exhibited by the European leagues, it is a bit awkward to see you walk out on the pitch with teams, and during halftime breaks to make your appearance on television. We do not find Greg Dyke, chairman of the English Football Association, walk out with teams during matches. In fact, very few outside England have barely seen him on television – yet it is a well-run league. (Read: From car painter to ISL star – the rise of Arata Izumi)
Are there any former footballers, coaches, football journalists on the ISL management board? Someone who knows the game inside out? Bollywood celebrities and cricket stars will bring the league good attention for a short while, but in the long run, it is people who love the sport while also having a deep understanding of the game who can sustain this league.
Football can, and will, stand without the help Bollywood's glitz and glamour. Keep your faith on the fans and trust their intellect and engage in a little introspection – should people who would watch the match only because Deepika Padukone is in the stadium, be your target audience?
Yours half-thankful, half disgruntled hopeless Indian football fan. (Read: Top 5 moments of Indian Football in 2015)