Balls to ISL or How Reliance is killing local football

Recently, Royal Wahingdoh – a Shillong-based football club of some repute – formally announced that they would be pulling out of the I-League, an All India Football Federation (AIFF) promoted initiative. This came as a rude shock to the fans who had been religiously following the club. For the past few years, Royal Wahingdoh had fought vigorously in their bid to escape the tiers of the 2nd Division and enter the hallowed realms of the I-League. They finally succeeded in doing this in 2014. It was a moment of great pride for everyone involved especially considering they ended the season at third place in the league table. This is why last month’s announcement by the management about their decision to exit the I-League made such a big splash. After all, it seemed like they (the club) were throwing away everything they had sweated for and laboured over. The reason behind this pull-out is very interesting and deserves closer scrutiny. It is a story that is perhaps not unfamiliar to football aficionados, especially those attracted to events outside the playing field.

Before the game (Photo:Melam Rangad)
Before the game (Photo:Melam Rangad)

What exactly happened to force Royal Wahingdoh out of the I-League? According to the team management, this was because there seemed to be no “clear roadmap” for the financial investment (a sizable deposit) that they were expected to make for their participation. Even at the most uncritical level, Big Business Interests seem to be the undertow of the whole debacle. Once again, the “vulgarists” have a part to play in the show. It is not enough that Big Business entities run ‘shadow governments’, trample down regulations and disintegrate public sector enterprises. They must also control our games, regiment our enjoyment and profit from our entertainment. That word – profit – is crucial when it comes to these companies. It determines everything for them and is the sole reason why unhealthy tubs-of-lard would even think about sports or have anything to do with fitness. Profit is the sole motivation behind the rival league, the ISL, created as a last minute substitute for the I-League by the marketers of IMG-Reliance, Hero and others. The “roadmap” for the ISL, in comparison, seems very clear.

A perusal of the IMG-Reliance website shows how expansive their “vision” is for Indian sports. They have staked a claim in every conceivable sport being played in the country, everything from popular big ones like football to lesser played ones like rugby. The ISL is one of the brightest diadems in the IMG-Reliance showcase at the moment. It is being aggressively pursued and promoted. By signing a 15 year contract with the AIFF, the firm now has all that time in which to “radically restructure, overhaul, improve, popularize and promote the game of football throughout India, from the grassroots to the professional level” (IMG-Reliance website). This is bad news for those teams which are not interested in ‘surrendering’ to the ISL. The I-League (which has been around for a while) is being divested, disenfranchised and de-legitimised by corporate masterminds. It is all about “brand building” and the brand in question is the heavily-backed ISL. Without doing any of the hard work of actually ‘growing’ teams themselves, these corporate entities have sought to simply ‘copy-paste’ marketing strategies they have learned from the EPL, La Liga circuits. They don’t care about Shillong teams if those teams can’t be used to sell merchandise, tickets, grocery items. Football is a commodity to be sold, plain and simple.

Fans in stands (Photo:Melam Rangad)
Fans in stands (Photo:Melam Rangad)

Now, what is the future of (independent) Indian sports in this case? To be very honest, it seems bleak. Royal-Wahingdoh is one of three clubs that have decided to leave the I-League so far. By doing so, they are probably furthering the decline of the I-League at a faster pace, and the reciprocal rise of the ISL. This is probably what the corporate plan is. I will not be surprised if one day in the near future, owing to fewer teams playing, the I-League gets absorbed by the ISL. That would be a great day for the marketing honchos when all football teams in the country come under their thumb. Community football clubs should be given priority; ones which are connected to the lives of people/neighbourhoods/boroughs/villages. Instead the community, in the ISL scheme of things, only seems to exist if it is consuming. There, community will only ever be talked about in the pattern of lifestyles and shared material wants as seen in the horrendous promotions and ads. Instead of favouring models with more control by the people like the Bundesliga, Dutch League, AIFF has gone and signed a deal that might be a terrible blow for the “beautiful game”. Instead of the solid, measured football of the Germans, they have opted for the hype and entertainment of the English. Who has won more World Cups?

(Photo:Melam Rangad)
Royal Wahingdoh FC vs Shillong Lajong FC (Photo:Melam Rangad)

You might be reading this and if you’re an outsider, you might be feeling sad for the local clubs. Sure, in the big ocean of corporate sharks these sorts of clubs, and indeed football in general, suffer. However, many local clubs themselves are in existence because of wealthy patronage which in itself poses a problem. Though ISL is ‘privatisation’ on a large scale, the funding of local clubs must also be called into question and, before it is too late, regulated. Many of them have funding sources which are extremely suspect. It could very well be that if they themselves had a slice of the money pie, the management of scorned clubs might shut up about being treated unfairly. This would be utterly insincere. I beg to differ with the “charity” model advocates – a club can survive and thrive without some rich guy pumping in his millions. We need to explore the alternatives now more than ever.

Royal Wahingdoh FC fans (Photo:Melam Rangad)
Royal Wahingdoh FC fans (Photo:Melam Rangad)

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Avner Pariat Written by:

Avner Pariat is a poet and chronicler of Khasi Jaintia Hills.

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