I-League staring at eternal damnation as AIFF looks to “progress” Indian football

I-League staring at eternal damnation as AIFF looks to “progress” Indian football

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While no concrete decisions, concerning the future of the I-League next year, have been taken by AIFF yet, things have escalated enormously over the last one month. What started as the AIFF’s denial to broadcast half of the league matches has turned into I-League clubs fighting their very existence.

While “Hell” has a different connotation in various religious books, the most relatable I have come across was the one they portrayed in a  TV show called "The Preacher". Apart from the strange and stringent rules of the dark and twisted place, the series perfectly captured the utter despair of the prisoners who are forced to revisit their worst memory again and again in a loop for perpetuity.

My feelings towards I-League clubs, who will learn their fate sooner rather than later, aren’t any different. Despite them believing that they are waiting for the AIFF to provide a roadmap of their future starting next season, based on which they would take their next course of action, they are pretty aware of the eventual outcome. 

AIFF needs to choose money and viewership over a trivial concept like traditions to take Indian football to the next level. On second thought, the federation doesn’t even have a choice in it over their marketing partner Football Sports Department Ltd (FSDL), with whom they are contracted to make ISL the top tier league in the country.

However, Minerva Punjab owner, Ranjit Bajaj, told Sportscafe that while relegating I-League to a second division would be hurting, the clubs could still live with that. “NEROCA is reiterating the same point that Dempo, Salgaocar, and Sporting Club de Goa did. What’s the point of investing money and reaching the first division when it becomes the second division next year for no fault of ours?”

“However, all the top leagues in the world are decided by promotion and relegation, which means merit. Even if you have a second division, you will have a promotion and relegation. So, if we deserve to be there we will be there and if we don’t deserve, we won’t be,” said Bajaj.

I-League’s union has asked for a unified league - a plan that looked impeccable to the football fans as it accommodated all the troubled clubs and, more importantly, to see the much-needed eight month long league. Becoming a world power in football necessitates the players to play 40-45 matches, which very much demands for a 20-team league playing 38 league matches apart from the six-seven cup matches. India, so far, are limited to play 20-22 games in that place.

But, only if identifying the problem was the end of it. Modern problems need modern solution and the realities are created accordingly.  As per the “contract”, ten clubs cannot be included in the elite league at a time. 

“If the bid opens, then some of the clubs can bid. Then, slowly next year again it can be opened up. You can’t merge twenty clubs just like that. There are huge financial implications,” AIFF general secretary Kushal Das had said in an interview with the Hindu.

This rightly points to the hell I-League clubs would be stuck in. “You can’t just say that a club can get relegated to the third division but won’t be promoted to the first division even if they top their league,” lamented Bajaj.

“Big clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will survive but smaller clubs like us, Aizawl FC, or NEROCA for that matter, will struggle. The matches won’t be broadcasted as it will be second division and we won’t have sponsors. Who will be willing to spend money and take it all over the country when there will be no sponsors? Players won’t be willing to play and so will be the foreigners. It will be very difficult to sustain,” Bajaj added.

Honestly, more than the tradition, Indian football needs eyeballs, which Star Sports, who has a stake in the ISL, could provide in their prime time slots. I-League has been barely holding on to two strings at the moment – AIFF and tradition. And now with AIFF also turning away, heritage cannot stop clubs from bleeding to death. Tradition has no place in this brutal, real, world.

The corporate can’t be blamed for their motive either . A wealthy businessman with an ambition to better Indian football would invest in the future, where the biggest of stars would come to play and coach, making it a win-win situation where they get the money and Indian football gets visibility on the world map.

As Rick Warren had once said, “We are products of our past, but we don't have to be prisoners of it”. And while I-League is the forest that kept sustaining the love for the game in the country, they are the greenery which needs to be killed and buried to pave the cement for Indian football’s future.

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