The season started in June with an impassioned tweet from Sunil Chhetri calling on Indians to come and watch the national team at the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai. Only 2569 people had turned up to watch the opener against Chinese Taipei and it was ironic that the skipper used that most transient of mediums to drive home his point. The stadium sold out for the next few games featuring India and while Chhetri’s video appeal was the most retweeted post in the country last year, normal service will no doubt soon resume when the national team plays again. Football works in fits and starts in this country and the season past went much the same way.
In the second year that this site is taking stock of where the game stands in India, let’s begin by checking on progress made on the National Facility Plan (NFP). The addition of quality footballing spaces across the country was seen in our previous review as critical to the development of grassroots and youth development programs in this country. Unfortunately, not much progress has been made on that front. Through the AIFF Academy Accreditation System and national Youth Leagues, more than seventy existing venues have been inspected and rated in the past few years, but the proposed National Centre Of Excellence in Kolkata is still starved of funds and investment in the building of infrastructure elsewhere is almost non-existent.
This is not to say that the All India Football Federation have sat idle. Genuine progress has been made in the areas of competition-oriented development, coach and referee education programs and in bringing FIFA tournaments to India. Some might say that hosting events should be the least of our priorities right now but the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2017 did leave some semblance of a legacy seen in the performances of age-group national sides over the past year. Similarly, the U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2020 will hopefully inspire girls to take up the game in a country where the Indian Women’s League (IWL) struggles to find an audience and youth leagues for women do not exist. This shows in the performances of the women’s sides in Asian competition and none of them have qualified for a continental championship since the 2006 U-19 Asian Championships in Malaysia.
The picture looks a lot rosier on the men’s side. While the U-23 side failed to break their Asian qualification jinx in Tashkent last month, the U-20 squad made a good impression at the COTIF Cup in Spain last year, holding Venezuela to a goalless draw before beating Argentina in a famous result. The U-16 side put in great performances right through the year and reached the quarter finals of the Asian Championships before losing 0-1 to South Korea in October. Before that, they stunned the then reigning Asian champions, Iraq 1-0 in the West Asian Football Federation Tournament in Amman and finished runners-up behind Japan.
The senior team capped an impressive year off by registering their first win at the Asian Cup in 55 years and came within three minutes of a place in the last sixteen. A late penalty by Bahrain knocked them out of the tournament, bringing to an end Stephen Constantine’s reign as head coach, who resigned later that night.
A return to domestic duties after the Asian Cup in January put the spotlight back on a row that had been simmering away in the background for a couple of seasons. Till 2017, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) had stood firmly behind the I-League as the officially sanctioned premier league in the country. However, the growth of the Indian Super League (ISL), till then seen as a tournament, could not be ignored. Special dispensation was provided to the ISL and it allowed the competition’s 2017-18 winner, Chennaiyin FC, entry into the AFC Cup, with the slot taken away from the winners of the Super Cup.
All along, it also maintained that its constitution would not allow a country to have two top leagues and they have since called for a merger of the two leagues with promotion and relegation introduced over the next few seasons. The threat of sanctions arise if the AIFF fail to comply and the federation do not seem to know where to start.
A fifteen year, 700-crore sponsorship and marketing deal signed with IMG Reliance in 2010 and the agreement with Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) for the conduct of the ISL hangs over their head like the sword of Damocles. FSDL is owned by Reliance again and Star Sports, with IMG giving up their 10% stake before the start of the 2018-19 season. Their obligations to their partners, real and otherwise, have forced AIFF to take a neglectful attitude towards the I-League manifesting itself this season in telecast disputes (foreseen on this site) and a lack of clarity about the league’s future.
The main issues seem to be around money. Indian football does not generate enough income for clubs to be self-sustaining yet, especially in the ISL. Clubs are up to 100-150 crores in deficit over the past five seasons and unlike cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL), an upturn in fortunes is not seen to be close. The teams in the I-League face a similar problem though by keeping costs down, they are able to cut losses and sustain themselves to a certain extent. The economics within the two leagues are vastly different however, and it is not surprising that the ISL owners and FSDL take a short-term view on the path forward for India’s league structure.
As the custodian of the game in this country, the onus is on the AIFF to take ownership of the situation and propose a solution that works for all parties. Gains have been made on the field in recent years and there is a real risk of it all going down the drain if immediate steps are not taken to remedy the situation.
The fracas at the Super Cup last month, where seven I-League clubs pulled out of the competition in protest and then demanded to be re-instated, showed everyone involved in poor light. It was one of many instances this season where Indian football fans were left shaking their heads in disgust. The conclusion of an I-League season with one game still left to play and the final league table undecided, FSDL appointments to key AIFF positions, external interference in the selection of India’s next head coach; the list is long.
Meanwhile, the 73rd edition of the Santosh Trophy reaches its conclusion this weekend in obscurity and in May, the Indian Women’s League will start and finish in the blink of an eye to close out the season. As I mentioned earlier, football works in fits and starts in India and when it does, one is none the wiser at times.