The Winds of Merger : Will I-League & ISL merger heal Indian football?
IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW. Why Pune FC and Bharat FC pulled out in tandem over the summer. Why Royal Wahingdoh, after months of rumours and confusing speculation, decided to withdraw from I-League at the last moment. Why after one year of partnership Shillong Lajong decided to sell all its stakes in ISL franchise NorthEast United and separate from them.
It has been known for a while that I-League and ISL are going to be unified into one long full-season league. This is something most fans and players are in favour of; it is the only way to resolve the chaotic situation that has prevailed over the domestic calendar ever since the ISL arrived and split it down the middle.
But the logistics of this merger of epic proportions are as complicated as they get. And this is where the months of deliberations, disagreements and debates in closed boardrooms will come into play. But one of the prevailing – and most likely – models being proposed is that of constituting the new league as one based on the ISL’s franchise model.
While it makes obvious sense for the new league to retain the ISL brand name, holding on to its policies on team distribution makes the waters a lot more muddy.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The proposed model suggests that the new league should have a one-team-per-city policy…ringing a death-knell for a number of clubs who will be barred from playing in the nation’s top division[/pullquote]
The proposed model suggests that the new league should have a one-team-per-city policy, with special exceptions for cities like Kolkata where rival clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have large followings of their own. Implementing this policy would be one way to counter an issue that has plagued NFL and I-League since forever; clubs being congested in particular regions, preventing the league from gaining pan-Indian presence. But while this approach does address those concerns, it also rings a death-knell for a number of clubs who will be barred from playing in the nation’s top division.
When it came to Pune, the ISL’s Pune City was the obvious front-runner to retain the franchise in the new league. This meant the end of the road for long-running I-League club Pune FC, and they folded their first team operations this summer, as did the short-lived Bharat FC. DSK Shivajians have come up as the new I-League club from the city, but they are reportedly in talks for merging with Pune City. The Shivajians already have everything in place to fulfill the AFC club licensing criteria. Pune City will be spared the trouble of building anything on their own.
Up in the North-East, the Guwahati franchise already belongs to NorthEast United. And since Shillong Lajong have separated from the John Abraham-owned team, they became the front-runner for getting the Shillong franchise thanks to influence and money-power. That’s why Wahingdoh pulled out. They waited till November to do it so that AIFF don’t get to spin their withdrawal as “failing to meet licensing requirements” as they did with Pune FC and Bharat FC. They wanted it to be known loud and clear that they were walking out of the I-League as a protest; that they have been shut out from having a role to play in the future of Indian football.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Since Shillong Lajong have separated from the John Abraham-owned team, they became the front-runner for getting the Shillong franchise thanks to influence and money-power. That’s why Wahingdoh pulled out[/pullquote]
In Mumbai, the situation is a bit curious. The city has two teams to speak of; Mumbai FC in the I-League and Mumbai City FC in the ISL. But while Mumbai FC play their matches at the Cooperage Stadium in Colaba, Mumbai City are based in the D Y Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai; that’s a different district altogether. So by that loophole, both teams may be allowed to co-exist in the city.
Goa, meanwhile, is ripe for the merger. Merging Salgaocar and Dempo with FC Goa won’t take long. And the only other I-League club that lays a claim to the Fatorda Stadium – Sporting Clube de Goa – are reportedly waiting for their 60th anniversary to close down.
But the power-play behind this rule comes to the fore in Bangalore, where Ozone Group, a sponsor of ISL franchise Chennaiyin FC, have acquired the rights to renovate the Bangalore Football Stadium and started a new club – Ozone FC – that aspires to play in the I-League in a few years. This looked curious from the start because the city already has Bengaluru FC; a club that has single-handedly built a football fan culture in the city. If the new league is to have just one club per city, why would Ozone Group, a company well-connected with ISL and the powers that be in Indian football, open a club in that city?
It smells of a strategic move; a ploy to weaken Bengaluru FC’s negotiation power when the terms of merger are agreed upon. BFC have been one of the major opponents of ISL; and they are the only club who have the financial backing to stand up to the cash-rich private tournament and its stakeholders. So weakening them would be crucial to get them to agree to some of the harsher terms; like potential franchise fees.
But we can probably trust Bengaluru FC to weather this storm as well. They have established themselves as one of the most impactful clubs in the country, and they will definitely have a long haul in Indian football. But a larger impact of this model will be seen on the second division.
MANY OF THE clubs in the I-League 2nd Division exist because they aspire to play in the top division. And many of them are based in cities where there is already a major player claiming the franchise. Guwahati FC, for example. The club was started by a former co-owner of NorthEast United as a rebellion against and an alternative to the Highlanders’ monopoly. This policy will shut them out, and maybe shut them down.
Then there’s Chanmari FC, a club based in Aizawl. They are bitter rivals of Aizawl FC in the Mizoram Premier League, and last season gave them a tough fight in the race to gain promotion to I-League. What if they win the 2nd Division? Will they be allowed to move up to the new league? In fact, if the unified league decides to enforce policies like franchise fees etc, will they be able to afford to move up?
The 2nd Division isn’t televised and most clubs don’t get a sponsor in the lower league. Many of these clubs exist solely on the hope of making it to the top tier one day and getting the sponsors and publicity. But if the new league shuts the door on small clubs like this it may break the lower league. Clubs like Mohammedan Sporting, who are having a hard time staying in existence already, may fold for good.
And add to that the likeliness of ISL franchise owners to strongly object to the idea of relegation; and it may well be the death knell for the entire 2nd Division. We may end up with a US-like system where no club can move up the divisional ladder on merits alone. It will all be decided on the business table, depending on how much money they can cough up; the business aspect of the sport will make the results on the field irrelevant.
But the bitter truth is that, given Indian football’s unhealthy tendency to concentrate its growth in certain pockets (3 teams in Pune being a prime example), something radical needs to be done to force upcoming clubs to seek out new cities instead of crowding places like Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore. And retaining the franchise system in the unified league is one plausible way to make it happen. And once the league is well-spread with every region represented, the franchise model can be rolled back. In fact, chances are it will be implemented with a time-limit from the outset to allow the teams to prepare in advance for days when they will have local rivals and the threat of relegation.
The problem, however, is that the potential positive results from this approach will take a long time to kick in. We’re talking a decade, probably much more. But in the immediate present, it will cause many more clubs to fold and potentially disintegrate the 2nd Division.
This will intensify the job crisis Indian professional footballers are experiencing at this moment. More than 300 players ply their trade in the second division. Most of them are now at risk of ending up without a team. If football was a corporate, layoffs of this magnitude would be scandalous. Sure, if the new league follows the AFC regulations of having a maximum of 4 foreigners in the team it will help lessen the the number of jobs lost, but there will be an impact nonetheless.
We have seen the effects of 3 clubs pulling out of I-League. It brought the league on the verge of failure as it was now too short for the champion to qualify for the AFC Champions League. They had to bring back the Federation Cup just to make up the numbers. While the return of the Cup is something all players, clubs and fans will welcome and celebrate, the context of its comeback is a sobering reminder of how close the I-League has come to a breaking point.
The whole episode has triggered a lot of anxiety among players. An expression of that was the open letter from Sunil Chhetri to his colleagues, calling out for unity among players to fight the bad times coming their way. But if the 2nd Division takes a hit the fallout may be massive; and all stakeholders including AIFF/IMG-R, clubs/franchises and players will come out embittered. The new league will bear a birthmark of conflict, with a whole generation of disenfranchised clubs and footballers cursing at its name.
Chiranjit Ojha is a research scholar and writes on football for thefangarage.com
He also writes science fiction in Bengali.
For his other football writing go to http://thefangarage.com/author/chiranjit-ojha