Why AIFF’s decision to relegate I-League clubs and instal ISL as top division is wrong

The reasons cited by the All India Football Federation are either completely wrong or partial truths at best.
Why AIFF’s decision to relegate I-League clubs and instal ISL as top division is wrong
Why AIFF’s decision to relegate I-League clubs and instal ISL as top division is wrong

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) Executive Committee on July 9 announced that they have decided to relegate the top clubs playing in Hero I-League and instal Indian Super League (ISL) as the premier top division of the country. And in this process, India’s nodal football governing body created a wrong that will compound over the years.  

The Federation’s official statement read: “AIFF Executive Committee recommends to Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to positively consider their request.” 

The request here refers to a letter that asks for the “Champions of Hero Indian Super League to get a berth for qualifiers of the AFC Champions League.’’

AFC Champions League also known as the ACL is a premier Asian continental football tournament. By recommending that the ACL berth be transferred from the I-League to the ISL, the AIFF is also signalling the shift in the official top division status from I-League to the ISL.

The issue

Indian Football for the last 5 years has had two tournaments running side by side. They are I-League and the Indian Super League. I-League was the official top-division league of the country and the apex of a multi-tier league set up which extends to the district levels. First started as the National Football League in 1994, it was renamed and relaunched as I-League in 2007. 

Indian Super League has none of the legacy or the history of I-League and has a different format but is seen as the future of the sport. It was started in 2014 by IMG-R — A joint venture between IMG and Reliance Industries, who are the present Marketing Partners of AIFF. ISL’s defining feature is that it’s a closed and privately controlled tournament with AIFF’s approval. 

Since ISL’s launch in 2014, there has been debate on the question of which league should constitute the premier status in India in the years to come. In the last couple of years, it was widely expected that ISL would be the chosen one but questions remained on how exactly this would be done. 

These questions and concerns have generated resentment in the football community in India and has even led to the complete pullout of some of the prominent clubs from I-League like Sporting Goa and Dempo.

AIFF’s Executive Committee Meeting on July 9 was meant to address these concerns and give a definitive roadmap for Indian football. That didn’t happen however.

Instead, the AIFF announced its decision to relegate the I-League clubs without specifying what the future holds for the teams concerned and the announcement was made accompanied by the following reasons justifying it:

  1. MRA (Master Rights Agreement) between AIFF and FSDL.

  2. Most of the members of the national team are signed with ISL teams.

  3. TV viewership and in stadia attendances of ISL are growing more substantially than that of the I-League.

  4. ISL Teams are in compliance with AFC regulations and criteria.

It can be found that each of these points are either completely wrong or partial truths at best.

Master Rights Agreement  

Under this agreement, IMG-R became the official commercial partners of the AIFF and got hold of extensive rights to football in India including the broadcast rights, IPR and the right to start a new league. Recently, it came in the public domain that the MRA agreement held AIFF contractually bound to make the tournament organised and run by their Marketing Partners as the official top division of the country. Indian Super League is the tournament referred here. To play in the ISL, a club has to get approval from the organisers, pay an annual franchisee fee in the range of Rs. 12 to 18 crore unlike the I-league which is a proper and open league with promotion and relegation format, which is in line with the global format like in English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga.  

Citing the MRA as one of the reasons isn’t correct by any means because it was the AIFF themselves who signed the MRA, nobody forced it on them to do this.

Indian National Squad signed with ISL teams

Most members in the national team are signed to ISL clubs, true. But “signed’’ is the key word here because almost none of the present members are actually products from ISL exclusively. 

This fact is important because a league or a system that can churn out quality players at a good rate is what benefits the national team. ISL has a long way to go before it can prove itself on this front. The I-League, on the other hand, continues to churn out players for the national team every year. Joby Justin, Soosiaraj and most recently Narendra Ghelot are good examples here. It is rational to expect the ISL to contribute more to the National Team in the coming years but AIFF is lying through their teeth at the moment by giving an impression that the ISL is doing the biggest contribution to the National Team.

TV Viewership and in-stadia attendances 

ISL has shown considerable growth in TV viewership. The tournament has been designed and structured to extract the maximum TV viewership. All ISL matches kick offs in the evening during the TV Prime Time and only a single match is held on a match day with a semi-final and final. Star Network which telecasts the matches holds minority stake in the ISL. TV broadcast is done in HD quality and also telecast in many regional channels of Star Network thereby ensuring a wider coverage for the league.

I-League despite being broadcast by the same company i.e. FSDL (under the terms of the MRA) received none of these benefits. I-League matches were forced by the organisers into 2pm and 5pm kick-offs in order to not clash with the prime-time broadcast of ISL. TV telecast of I-League is in SD format with really poor production quality and the matches can be viewed in just one single channel Star Sports 3. Result was that the league received limited viewership on TV unlike the ISL.

In-stadia attendances has a different story to tell. In this respect, the ISL has been declining for the past 3 years while that of I-League saw a gradual rise. Despite being heavily promoted and home to well-invested football teams featuring top class players, the ISL has not succeeded in bringing fans to the stadium at all. I-League however got bolstered by the arrival of newer clubs and taps into rising general interest in the tournament. AIFF is simply misleading us in their press release when they sight in-stadia attendances as a reason for elevation of the ISL to top-division status. 

ISL Teams and academies’ compliance with AFC Licensing Criteria,

For the coming 2019-20 season, the AIFF gave accreditation to 89 academies including 9 from the ISL and 8 from the I-League. Reliance Youth Foundation Champs was the top certified football academy with 5 star rating, followed by Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC at 4 stars. All these three academies are associated with the ISL directly but it can be argued that both Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC (Tata Football Academy) have got origins outside ISL. I-League clubs weren’t too far behind with Minerva Punjab securing 3 stars while the vast majority of the rest of the clubs in both I-League and ISL getting the 2 star rating. We can’t comment about the Club licensing criteria for the coming season because AIFF has not released this data yet. The data from last season showed that many ISL and I-League clubs did not qualify. This line of reasoning from the AIFF thus doesn’t make much logical sense.   

The AIFF failed to address many of the most basic concerns raised including the lack assurances about TV telecast of matches for the clubs in I-League. The AIFF failed in its primary duty which is to uphold the interests of all the stakeholders and the fans. 

The only definitive thing we have heard from the meeting is that they have decided to relegate at least 10 top class teams from the I-League and they don’t even have an answer about the exact position of the relegated sides or where these clubs will play in the coming season. With the top-division pretty much under the control of a private corporation and inability of the Federation to address the concerns of the teams playing in any of the public tournaments they control and organise, the relevance of a national administration body for Indian Football is coming into question. 

Views expressed are the author's own. 

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