ISL vs I-League: The battle for the soul and the future of Indian football

With a population of almost 1.4 billion, it’s fair to say that India are one of the biggest underachievers in world football. There are many reasons for the country’s inability to punch its weight on the global stage, but one of the principal faults is the shoddy organisation of domestic football in this vast Asian nation.

India currently has two national football leagues, with each vying to be the country’s premier competition. The fifth edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) began on September 29. From its origins as an unofficial division with seasons which lasted just two months in 2015, it has grown to become the driving force that’s reshaping Indian football. It’s now officially recognised by the bodies which govern the sport in Asia and the world, and each campaign now takes place over a six-month period in which the league competes with its more illustrious European counterparts for prime-time viewership.

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The ISL isn’t the only show in town, however. The competition currently runs in conjunction with the I-League, which became India’s sole professional league in 2007. The latest I-League season begins on Saturday, but the older, more traditional competition is struggling to compete with the ISL’s structural and financial weight.

The ISL is a highly commercial operation which attracts greater outside investment and yields larger revenues. Yet while I-League clubs have limited resources in comparison, their clubs do a much better job of connecting with the local populations. The two Kolkata giants, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, have century-long histories, while teams in Manipur, Mizoram and Kashmir also do a good job of representing their areas. While the I-League has promotion from and relegation to a second tier, ISL sides are protected from demotion in order to safeguard owners’ investments.

Attempts to merge the two league have repeatedly run into roadblocks. However, with a directive from Asian governing body AFC and a looming threat of sanctions in 2019, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is under pressure to resolve the deadlock.

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In 1996 the AIFF launched the National Football League (NFL), the first national competition in India. The semi-professional NFL lasted for 10 seasons but failed to make any lasting impact due to poor infrastructure, a lack of professionalism and corruption within the governing body.

In 2007 the NFL was re-branded and the I-League was launched. It gained popularity much quicker than its predecessor but also failed to capture mass attention in a cricket-mad country. Zee Network’s TV broadcasts certainly helped, but the quality of football remained unchanged and, after a successful inaugural season, attendances began to dip.

The contract with Zee Network was terminated in October 2010, and the AIFF signed a 15-year deal with IMG Reliance worth £100m two months later. This deal gave the company the right to sponsorship, advertisement, broadcasting and, most significantly, the chance to create a brand new football league in the country.

The plan was to build a new national league of city-based franchises akin to cricket’s successful Indian Premier League (IPL), a closed league with no promotion or relegation for the first 10 years. Each team would play home and away against every other side in the division, before a four-team play-off series would determine the overall champions.

The ISL was launched in October 2014 with eight franchises under a “one city, one club” rule. FIFA gave the competition the green light and the clubs began to attract global stars to India: Alessandro Del Piero, Luis Garcia, David Trezeguet, Marco Materazzi and Robert Pires were among those who made the move. Homegrown Indian players, meanwhile, were loaned to ISL clubs from their parent I-League outfits.

There was plenty of buzz around the ISL’s debut campaign, and the average attendance that season ranked fourth in the world. It climbed one place higher by overtaking La Liga the following year, but this was followed by a league-wide decrease as several teams were forced to move to smaller grounds.

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Until the 2017/18 season, the I-League and ISL were held at different times of the year: the former used to take place between January and May, while the latter was staged from October until December. In October 2017, though, India hosted the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, forcing both leagues to be held concurrently between November and April.

This led to the best Indian players being snapped up on permanent contracts by the richer ISL franchises, depriving I-League clubs of many of their stars ahead of the new season. Already suffering from a lack of visibility, I-League sides were damaged further by this development, while the decision to award the ISL champions a place in the AFC Cup qualifying rounds lent further credibility to its claims to be Indian’s premier national league.

In 2017 prominent I-League club Bengaluru FC successfully bid for a place in the ISL. The most successful Indian club in the last five years, Bengaluru are also the only team from the country to reach the final of the AFC Cup, which they did in 2015/16. Their decision to move to the ISL shows where they believe the future of Indian football to lie.

This development has concerned many major I-League clubs, especially those in the footballing hotbed of Kolkata. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan each has a massive fan base, with the derby between them regularly attracting over 100,000 spectators. Many football fans in Kolkata have refused to attend the games of ISL franchise ATK, who are based nearby, while East Bengal and Mohun Bagan failed to enter the ISL this year due to legal issues.

In the last decade, several northeast states have become prominent players in Indian football. Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram have produced several national-team footballers, while Shillong Lajong of Meghalaya and Aizawl FC of Mizoram have some of the most passionate supporters in the country. The derbies in the region always produce vibrant crowds, proving that the I-League still has plenty going for it.

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With the latest I-League season set to begin this weekend, the next few months could be key in determining the future of Indian football as both competitions run alongside each other once more. Both divisions will be broadcast live on TV, and the foreign player cap is the across the two leagues. Additionally, both the I-League and ISL will have equal representation in continental competitions.

Yet while the AIFF may claim that neither league is more important than the other, it’s clear that the ISL is the primary competitions. It’s home to most of India’s best players, who have been forced to make a decision now that the two leagues run simultaneously. Moreover, with the notable exception of big guns East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, I-League clubs are struggling to keep pace with the financial power of ISL franchises. This means they are forced to sell their talent to their cash-rich counterparts in the Super League, with the proceeds usually reinvested in youth development.

Another factor in the ISL’s favour is the TV scheduling, with their games mostly shown at 8pm compared to mid-afternoon slots for the I-League. Of equal significance is the fact the Star Network will only broadcast 50 of 91 I-League matches this coming season.

A recent report produced by a two-member committee appointed by FIFA and AFC has proposed a ban on Indian club teams in continental competition if the AIFF fails to implement a unified national league structure by 2019/20. Since its publication, rumours of a merger between the ISL and I-League have surfaced.

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When asked about the AIFF’s stance regarding the situation, general secretary Kushal Das said, “When all these issues about the ISL and I-League – which [of the two] will be the top league – happened we requested the AFC help us in creating a road map. They agreed to send their consultants to discuss with the stakeholders and will come up with an official report.

“But until the official final report from the AFC is presented to the AIFF executive committee, no other report has sanctity. A final decision on this issue will only be taken by the AIFF Executive Committee and not by anybody else. We have enough time to take a decision once the season is over.”

With the 2018/19 I-League season about to begin and the longest ever ISL campaign already under way, the battle to become India’s premier football league continues amid an uncertain and potentially gloomy future.

ISL vs I-League: The battle for the soul and the future of Indian football
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