There is a famous saying in the business world that “Supreme Art of War is to subdue the Enemy without Fighting”. IMG-Reliance has applied the same theory to capture the football system in India. AIFF have become a puppet of IMG-R due to the latter’s financial prowess. Consequences of this have already started to show. The top-division clubs are opting to shut down their first team operations, some have sold their academies and some have merged to sustain in this ever growing pit. AIFF let the financial powerhouses into the system when IMG-Reliance bagged the rights of AIFF in December 2010 citing the need to generate some capital from the sport for a sustained future. The clubs are angry, frustrated and concerned at the turn of events. While FDSL (Football Sports Development Limited) managed Indian Super League has been a success, I-League clubs are worried. They see it as a blow to their existence. With poor organization has already hit the league, clubs now have come together under one roof for a likely showdown with the Federation.
Royal Wahingdoh, which is a famous shilling based club in 2015 closed down their first team operations after finishing 3rd in the I-league citing the reason that there is no clear roadmap for the financial investment they were to make for their participation. This came as heartbreak to the fans of RWFC but they continued with their academy and local league participation. Recently RW has announced that they are going to dissolve this club to be part of Shillong United FC.
Pune FC and Bharat FC were the next two to shut down the operations because they are frustrated with the lack of an overall vision from AIFF to guide Indian football forward. People may not miss Bharat FC because they were in existence for only one season but Pune FC was there for seven long seasons and were an example for other clubs when it came to professionalism and youth development. After running the club for another year Pune FC finally choked and in 2016 was bought by FC Pune City an Indian Super League franchise in a bit to get the AFC-A club license to play in the AFC tournaments.
The story of clubs closing down first team operations due to step motherly behavior to the I-League where all these clubs used to ply their trade didn’t stopped. The three top Goan clubs came together against the federation and after a series of internal meetings and with the top officials of the AIFF, clubs namely Sporting Clube de Goa, Salgoacar FC and Dempo SC all closed their first team operations and decided not to compete in the 2017 I-league. All these clubs gave the same reason to the media that AIFF does not have a clear roadmap.
When the top three of the I-league got an invitation to be a part of ISL, the newly crowned champions Aizawl FC got ignored and were not invited to the ISL which is going to be the parallel top division for now and if the things go according to the plan will be the only top division of Indian football as I-League is set to be relegated to 2nd division. Even after many protest’s Aizawl could enter the ISL without follow the rules of bidding.
Recently reports have emerged that DSK Shivajians FC and Churchill Brothers SC also may not take part in I-league 2017-18. Their main problem is that I-league running parallel to the ISL may cause Logistical problem as clubs share home grounds and as one by one the big clubs are shutting down, I-League may not be feasible enough to invest such huge amount of sums for first team operations as it has only become a rapidly diminishing league.
AIFF proposed a roadmap to all the clubs in the latter half of 2016. AIFF president Praful Patel presented in the name of an ISL and I-League merger that they want to make ISL the top division of Indian football and add 2-3 teams from the I-league to the top division league and close the league for the next 6-7 seasons. They wanted to relegation all the other clubs to 2nd division or the league-1 and promising to give the league-1 television coverage and good structure till the ISL teams break even and are ready to compete in a promotion and relegation bound system. This roadmap indeed was the worst possible scenario for clubs that have been there even before the independence of India as a country and have won many accolades for Indian football against many big nations.
Now the scenario is even worse as I-league and ISL would be running parallel after the Under-17 World Cup later in October. ISL has expanded itself to 10 teams taking in the I-league giants Bengaluru FC and TATA, who run one of the best football academies in India in Jamshedpur. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal also tried to be part of the expanding league but their demands came too heavy to FDSL (company that own ISL and is run by IMG-Reliance and Star India) and they now have to settle in the I-league. ISL has strengthened itself by picking the best from the I-League and leaving no other option for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to join ISL either this season or in the coming seasons and could be compelled to meet all the demands FDSL want the other two clubs to fulfill if someone do not intervene. ISL want the clubs to pay the franchise fees to buy a franchise team from their own home. On top of this, they will not be able to play their home matches in Kolkata till the fifth season is completed as ISL teams have a contract clause that for first five season’s only one team will be allotted per city. If they don’t do so, they might lose their top players to the ISL teams and compete in I-league which now looks more like a second division league with only a handful of teams left.
Upcoming teams such as Aizawl FC (recent I-League Champions), Shillong Lajong FC, Minerva Punjab FC, NEROCA FC (recently promoted) who all got promotion in the Top division of the Indian football by playing in the lower division for years and establishing themselves in their respective regions are now being ignored and are lying in a league which has started to look like the 2nd division of I-League other than the fact that Mohun Bagan and East Bengal play in this league. There is a huge question mark on how these upcoming teams are going to find sponsors and investor if they play in a league with no big team who gather the viewership and maintained the competitiveness of the top division.
So how the FDSL-AIFF master plan worked?
All the hurdles cleared.
With DSK Shivajians and Churchill Brother SC set to shut down first team operations and relegated team Mumbai FC who has not yet asked the AIFF to re-instigate them into the I-League, the I-league are now left with Mohun Bagan, East Bengal who are set to lose their big players. The players might opt to play in the ISL because of the salary on offer by the franchises. Other than these two teams the I-League is left with young teams such as Chennai City FC, Minerva Punjab who are just one year old in the first division. Shillong Lajong is the 3rd most experienced club in the I-League with 8 seasons of top division experience at their helm. NEROCA got promotion in the last concluded I-league 2nd division and will be the sixth team of the I-League next season.
Making I-league the Feeder League to ISL
On the other hand, if the leagues run parallel then the I-league will surely lose the top players because of the sparkling money and opportunity on offer in the ISL. This will leave the I-League teams with only young upcoming players acting as a feeder league to ISL. Without the top teams and top players it cannot be called as a top league. Only giving the name of a top division will not give I-league a top division status. In any case I-league is now a lost cause breathing some last breadth of its existence. Either by shutting down the club or by closing the first team operations, FDSL got all their hurdles cleared and with AIFF not even trying once to talk to the teams to stay clearly shows they also want the same to happen.
Win the War without fighting any Battle
If AIFF wanted the I-League to remain the top division they would have never let Bengaluru, Mohan Bagan and East Bengal get a chance to leave I-league and join ISL instead. They know that in the coming years ISL is going to be the top division and I-league will be relegated to 2nd division. In a way AIFF-FDSL are getting what they wanted, death of I-League. FDSL fired all these keeping the guns on the shoulders of AIFF and are winning a war without even fighting a single battle. AIFF is the main federation, good or bad they possess the ultimate power to change all these things. AFC also backed the AIFF clearing the last hurdle of FDSL to make ISL the top division of Indian Football. The future of Indian Football is now shifting and with the old experienced clubs shutting down and ISL clubs not having their own academies for development process thing now look like that India never had any football in them but the truth is that the real football from Indian hearts is being taken away and a new business minded Let’s football is being integrated into the Indian football system.