The ISL is going to be Indian football’s official mainstream from the next season onwards.
Former Mohun Bagan secretary Anjan Mitra has a funny bone. He, at times, also revels in his sarcasm. When the Indian Super League (ISL) was launched in 2013—the first season took place next year—to grow the game of football in the country, Mitra took it with a pinch of salt. “Indian football can’t move forward without Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. By the way, India won’t qualify for the World Cup finals in the next 100 years (unless they host it),” he had said then.
As Stephen Constantine’s India crashed out of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, Mitra’s words felt prophetic. The 4-1 victory against Thailand was an aberration. The match against Bahrain was the reality.
India’s qualification for the Asian Cup proper after a gap of eight years was basically a smokescreen. Truth hid behind it. All India Football Federation (AIFF) officials were having a junket in the desert sun. Newbie fans, with very little idea of what ails the sport in this country, were going gaga on social media. They should be forgiven, for their love for football is mostly restricted to watching the Premier League and supporting their ‘adopted’ clubs. That the current AIFF officials are prisoners of their ignorance is a far bigger concern. The football federation of late has presided over the systematic destruction of the club culture in Indian football. They take pride in promoting a glorified reality football show, the ISL, that is.
Thanks to Constantine, the 23-member India squad for the Asian Cup had only one player from the I-League. Jeje Lalpekhlua, with hardly any game time in the ISL, was picked at the expense of the likes of Jobby Justin, a consistent performer in the I-League. The Federation’s abject apathy towards the ‘second-tier’ seemingly had a rub-off effect on the head coach as well.
The AIFF roots from the ISL, happily ignoring the fact that the teams playing in the tournament care a hoot about the development of Indian football. Do they have a proper youth structure? Where’s talent scouting? The questions have to be asked. The ISL, at times, feels like a soap opera—a league that has a final!
Mitra was right… Football in India doesn’t exist without Bagan and East Bengal. One still remembers how noted cricket statistician and broadcaster Andy Zaltzman got excited about watching a Kolkata derby at the Salt Lake Stadium when England played a Test at Eden Gardens in December 2012. An early finish on Day Five—England won—gave Zaltzman and his English press colleagues an opportunity to turn up for the Bagan versus East Bengal I-League fixture. David Hopps, working for The Guardian then, decided to write a feature on Kolkata football.
How moronic that the AIFF and ISL organisers kept the two Kolkata giants out of the tournament just because they didn’t meet the franchise criteria. Bagan and East Bengal are not franchises; they are football institutions attached to the community. Football is a community sport played in the streets. At the grassroots, it nurtures young kids through under-height tournaments. The fashionable football schools set up by European clubs in metro cities are completely cut off from the grassroots. It would be interesting to know the AIFF’s youth policy, if it has any.
Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting are the reasons why football became popular in India. And not only the ‘holy trinity’ from Kolkata, JCT in Punjab, Dempo SC and Vasco SC in Goa, Mahindra United from Mumbai and Kerala Police used to be the football nurseries in their respective parts. Institutionalised destruction of the club structure has forced them to shut shop.
The ISL is going to be Indian football’s official mainstream from the next season onwards. How ludicrous that it has only one club from the north-east at the moment! Football is still the number one sport in that region. ISL’s five-year venue exclusivity clause—only one team is allowed from one city—beggars belief. Premier League nerds should inform the Federation that six clubs from London—Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, West Ham United, Crystal Palace and Fulham—feature in the league. With some leeway, Watford would qualify as the seventh London club playing in the English top-tier this term.
The Rs 15-crore franchise fee is another example of how oblivious Indian football’s governing body is to reality. Without a sponsor, even a big club like Bagan is struggling to clear salaries. At the moment, it’s running on a backlog. Mind, the clubs won’t get any share of the broadcast rights revenue if they enter into franchise football.
India rose in the Fifa rankings during Constantine’s second spell in-charge as the senior national team coach. They qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup proper. But there’s no structure in place that will ensure India’s steady rise. There’s every possibility that things would go downhill from here on. So don’t shout from the rooftops that Indian football is hale and hearty. It would be a silly attempt to escape reality.