Next month sees the commencement of the Indian Super League (ISL) – a football Franchise system modelled on the Indian Premier League (and which has been replicated in the Pro Kabaddi League here as well). Eight new teams will be formed, owned by no doubt, glamorous, rich, Indians and marketed to death. It will be screened wall to wall on Star Sports (the biggest Sports Networks in India) for ten weeks.
And it’s a farce.
India is a Cricket country (although field Hockey is the national sport) and whilst football is popular amongst a growing middle and upper class the national standard is relatively low (India are somewhere around 150 in the FIFA Rankings). That said, in the mid 1990’s a National Football League was set up to try & improve the game here and create a bit more professionalism around the sport. In 2007 it was re-branded the ‘I-League‘ – a further step forward in terms of professionalism as licensing criteria were introduced.
The ‘I-League’ is India’s national league, with it being affiliated to the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) and therefore the winners are eligible for the Asian Champions League. It is also FIFA recognised.
The ISL is none of these things. It is a closed bubble with teams built around ageing, foreign footballers – David James and Luis Garcia for example. The winners will be eligible for no further advancement. There will be little focus on youth development as marquee players are bought in each year to attract the viewers and therefore the TV revenue.
And it will draw attention away from a developing national league.
The I-League itself is not perfect. Due to licensing requirements in the past few seasons teams have been dropped out of the top division, whilst multi-million conglomerates have ‘bought’ their way in. Bengaluru FC is a prime example of that.
Owned by JSW it didn’t have to deal with the second division, gaining access to the top flight with the payment of a ‘fee’. They went on to win the division in their first season – thanks mainly to heavy investment in their playing staff. The trick now for them will be meeting the licensing requirements and sinking significant funding into their youth development – and evidence of that is beginning to rear it’s head as Bengaluru FC held one of their first ‘in the community days‘ this week.
The ‘Blues’ have been taken to by the local population too with an average home attendance last season around 8,000 – that’s pretty impressive outside of the Indian football heartlands of Goa and West Bengal. Initiatives like their clinic in Murphy Town will be key to this becoming a permanent success story.
This week the head of the ‘I-League’ said there was no issue as the ISL wouldn’t be a competitor… but it will be. Teams in the ISL will compete with existing ‘I-League’ teams for supporters – you don’t just swing your support from one team to another in football, that’s not how it works. You build a bond with ‘your’ team. Money that could be going to the development of the game on a national level will instead go towards these Franchise teams – or more specifically their owners and the foreign marquee players who won’t be in India in a couple of years. It may well end up attracting the top players out of the National League into the plastic, non-affiliated league due to money – which could in fact weaken the Indian National Team as the players wouldn’t be FIFA registered!
Then of course they will be competing for national attention and glory… egos will be stroked, and punctured… and in a Franchise world that leads to land grabs, disputes and ultimately legal wrangles. Having two nationwide football leagues in your territory is not going to be a good thing.
It will also be interesting to see how FIFA views it… this division doesn’t come under it’s auspices, so in one regard they can carry on as they please. In another regard, FIFA – itself not a bastion of integrity – could get jealous of money sloshing around that it hasn’t got it’s nose in… and take a less than benign view. Local members, if they start to lose players from their top divisions – and national eligibility – might start to ask questions in Zurich, and they’d be right to should they be impacted.
In the end, I can only hope that the ISL is consumed within the AIFF and the ‘I-League’ structure. Combine the best of both worlds. The ‘I-League’ could do with the additional exposure and revenue, the ISL could do with the professionalism and the affiliation and the AIFF could do with the larger, professional player pool to select from to try & increase it’s position within FIFA.
The BBC article at the outset of this piece is right. India is a sleeping giant in world football and the game is growing in popularity – particularly amongst the wealthy, but needs to develop in the right way. It’s got a great chance to build on relatively low foundations to build a long term, sustainable National League system that augments it’s international standing. Competing interests could kill the game here for decades.