Panaji: The Indian Super League (ISL) has successfully managed to wean away Bengaluru FC from the I-League, reducing India’s premier football competition to a secondary event much before anyone had predicted.
Bengaluru FC will be among the two new ISL teams – the other likely to be Tatas -- which will be announced in the next couple of days.
The Federation Cup champions have made it clear that they want to be part of a league that guarantees them a place in continental competitions (AFC Cup), and with AIFF now deciding to play both leagues simultaneously for six months, the former I-League champions will have a chance to take a shot at continental honours, even if they compete in the ISL.
On Saturday, when AIFF president Praful Patel met representatives of Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and two other clubs – Shillong Lajong FC and Churchill Brothers FC – in the Capital, he proposed a Super Cup to be played immediately after the conclusion of the two leagues with the winner qualifying for the AFC Champions League play-off and runner-up earning a AFC Cup slot.
The Super Cup will be a contest between the four top teams each from both leagues. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are expected to revert to the AIFF with their decision on Tuesday.
Whatever the Kolkata clubs decide, two things are for certain; they won’t be part of the ISL this season, and Bengaluru FC won’t be among the competing teams in I-League. “We have submitted our bid which means we want to play in the ISL. Our biggest concern has also been taken care of,” said Bengaluru FC chief technical officer Mandar Tamhane, referring to the AFC Cup slot they had been seeking.
Despite recent assurances regarding the I-League, the AIFF had always made it clear that they wanted to make ISL, now into its fourth season, the top tier league and reduce national league to the second tier, or League One as it would be called. The plan understandably met with some early resistance as Goan clubs – Dempo SC, Salgaocar FC and Sporting Clube de Goa – pulled out in protest last season but nobody was left in any doubt that the ISL will be India’s top-tier league, sooner rather than later.
So where does that leave the I-League, or the likes of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal?
AIFF president Praful Patel reiterated that the I-League will be India’s top league till a merger happens; that both leagues would have a common broadcaster and no effort would be spared for promotion. Should the Super Cup proposal fall through, I-League winners will get a spot in the lucrative AFC Champions League play-off.
In reality, the I-League is on its last leg.
“The AIFF wanted a merger. No doubt about that, but Aizawl’s unexpected I-League triumph and refusal of Kolkata clubs to pay the franchise fee (ranging from Rs 12 to Rs 18 crore) forced them into an alternative plan,” said a source who has been tracking the development.
The alternative plan, of course, is to play both leagues simultaneously. Never mind the stakeholders meeting in Kuala Lumpur last week, the AFC were never going to play spoilsport and had indicated their non-interfering stance last year itself.
“Any decisions on the structure of the game in India are for the AIFF executive committee to make, not the AFC,” general secretary Windsor John had said after a task force meeting in Goa in September last year.
Even now, the AFC simply laid out four routes for the AIFF to follow, two of which, including one of maintaining status quo, were ruled out. The AIFF conveniently blamed shortage of time to run both leagues one after another like the last three years but as another club official pointed out, the AIFF were never in favour of that arrangement.
“Everyone knew that the leagues cannot kick-off before November because of the (U-17) World Cup. Why then did the AIFF allow ISL to expand and admit two new teams? They could have gone for an expansion next season,” said the source. The truth lies somewhere in between.
1) More clubs participating, more players finding employment. Potentially, 22 teams in the two top-tiers
2) National team calendar will be streamlined. Coach Stephen Constantine will get to use more Fifa dates for camps and friendlies
3) Single broadcaster for both leagues; quality of broadcast will improve significantly
1) I-League has much to lose as top players will opt to play in ISL, whose clubs have 10 times the budget of most I-League clubs
2) I-League won’t be able to match the marketing blitz of ISL
3) Without BFC this season, and three Goan clubs last season, the I-League remains a much poorer competition
4) Apart from the Kolkata clubs and two from the NorthEast, others will struggle to attract crowd for their home games