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Can the revolution succeed

Published : May 20, 2016, 11:04 pm IST
Updated : May 20, 2016, 11:04 pm IST

The All India Football Federation is planning to revamp the league structure in the country from the 2017-18 season.

Nicolas Anelka
 Nicolas Anelka

The All India Football Federation is planning to revamp the league structure in the country from the 2017-18 season. In a meeting with I-League clubs, Indian Super League organisers and the TV channel holding the ISL rights recently, the federation discussed a proposal that envisages three leagues in a season spanning seven months.

The ISL with 10 or 12 teams will be the premier division followed by League 1 comprising teams that are part of the I-League and League 2 consisting of clubs in the I-League second division. By 2020, the AIFF is hoping to have 50 clubs across the three divisions. While there will be no promotion from League 1 to the ISL, teams can move up from League 2 to League 1. The Federation Cup will make way for a Super Cup, which will be conducted on the lines of the FA Cup. A women’s league is also in the pipeline.

The proposal, euphemistically called a vision document, has elicited usual responses: some clubs have hailed it and a few others are up in arms. The truth, as it always is, is somewhere down in the middle. Though there is no gainsaying the fact that the ISL and the I-League must be merged at the earliest for the betterment of Indian football, lingering questions over AIFF’s capability to carry out the difficult task persist. Kolkata’s East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, the two most storied clubs in the country, have already expressed apprehension over losing their identity in the football revolution.

Clubs in Goa, another important city in Indian football, are also not happy over the new leagues either. Their main worry is: How much different would League 1 from the I-League More important, there is little scope for them to feature in the top tier, which is effectively a competition for big boys with fat cheques. Although the AIFF has kept the door ajar for one city to have two ISL teams, given their size and population Goa can’t hope to have more than one. One has to wonder whether a sprawling metropolis like Kolkata can also cope with three ISL teams, if East Bengal and Mohun Bagan come on board on the basis of their fan base and history.

The AIFF has a well-earned notoriety for pumping in little money into marketing the I-League and there is no guarantee that its new avatar will not face the same fate. Above all, will Indian fans be ready to spare time, energy and money for a second-tier league in football

Conservative opponents of the vision document say the AIFF is more interested in gaining legitimacy to the ISL than improving Indian football. They have a point but they aren’t absolutely right because the ISL has to follow the guidelines of the Asian Football Confederation if it has to send teams to continental tournaments such as the AFC Cup and the AFC Champions League. At the moment, an ISL team can have six foreign players on the field. As per the AFC rules, however, only three foreigners can figure in the playing XI.

The ISL owes the buzz it generated to the presence of prominent names such as Elano, Roberto Carlos, Nicolas Anelka and Robert Pires. With fewer bigger names, the ISL might lose fizz. As of now, grounds for ISL matches are being hired at exorbitant costs. The availability of the grounds could become a major problem if the season is extended by four months. Headline-grabbing names from abroad may also be put off by a longer league. There is no doubt that Indian football needs visionary programmes to move to the next level. Whether the AIFF has the wherewithal to ring in changes is another question.