On the face of it, the very notion of a franchise football league is abhorrent and is completely against the spirit of the game. On the other hand, it could advocate love of the beautiful game to the far corners of the world's largest democracy.
Before debating on the issue, let us acquaint ourselves with the specifications of this new league. The upcoming Indian Super League (ISL) is to be a football tournament featuring newly created franchise teams, representing certain cities. The teams will feature the creme de creme of Indian footballers sprinkled with some international stars.
Though the organizers have played down such innuendos, it is no secret that the ISL draws its inspiration from and will follow the pattern of recent 'successful' franchise leagues of other sports hosted in India like the Indian Premier League (cricket), Hockey India League etc.
The trend of 'franchise leagues' which as recently developed in the country, seems to be manifesting itself in football through the ISL. The teams will be created by investors who will be able to buy the franchises through bids and will then set up the same.
The most perverse fact is that the aim of the producers to bolster Indian football is exactly what the I League was created for in the first place. And when we have such a successful (yes, successful) league in the country, why create a new one? Influenced by the monetary outlooks of IMG Reliance, the new heavyweight in Indian football politics, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) seems to have completely lost its sense of direction.
They say sports is all about entertainment. Any prudent sports fan will assure you that it is not. Sports is (also) about passion, rivalry, camaraderie, sportsmanship and much more. Football is redolent of all these surmounted by heritage, history and ideologies. These are the edifices on which football clubs are and were founded and it is these very foundations that the ISL threatens to destroy.
Let us take a short recourse here and ask ourselves, why do we really watch football? If your answer is purely for entertainment then I suggest you amble no further and stop reading this article.
However, if it is for the love of the game called football, for the individual players, for their stories and talents, for the clubs, for the ethos of football culture and for all the aforementioned factors; my friends I appellate you as 'true football fans' and as true football fans do you believe that the ISL will be beneficial for Indian football?
Does it not violate the ethics of football? The clubs of old were formed on common ideologies by similar sighted men and women without any pecuniary interests. And the fact that such clubs exist in India is a cause for rejoice. Why then, do we need franchises?
Why is it, that suddenly a big budgeted league gains the limelight while the quintessential clubs get sidelined? Because that is exactly what is happening. The loathsome motives of the commercialists have taken a turn for the worst. The AIFF is violating the very tenets of its existence.
It would be pragmatic to say that cricket overshadows football in India, but it would be ludicrous to say that indian football has no fan base. The hubs of football, namely Kolkata, Goa, Kerala and the North Eastern states have witnessed age old rivalries amongst historic clubs.
The citizens of these cities are very much acquainted and aligned with their local clubs. Such is the passion that derby day riots are not unheard of. The passion for the sport is tantamount to fanaticism.
An anecdote that comes to my mind is one of my father's who was once travelling in a Kolkata taxi and overheard the taxi driver chalking up plans over the phone to organize a football game the next morning. Obviously, the passion may not be ubiquitous but the number of followers is quite significant.
Having said that, we cannot deny the fact that in other Indian cities, the I league has a very low viewership. In fact, barring Delhi, there has never been a club from any city of the North.
European football is immensely popular and the I league is often ridiculed. And coming back to the ISL, we have to admit that its impact on these cities will be magnanimous. But if a few northern clubs were indicted into the I league, would the effect not be the same? The sleepy city of Bengaluru, alien to football, has come alive and taken the I league by storm with the formation of Bengaluru FC (a newly created company owned club). If inspiration was drawn from this (and grudgingly do I write this) and the AIFF ventured to create similar clubs in the North, matters would take a turn for the better.
As far as development goes, the hypocritical claims of the ISL organizers are comical (click to read about the 'claims'). How can a team, which shall exist and play for barely a month, possible develop youth football? For that, a proper club, not franchise, would be required with a permanent academy and squad. The ISL and I league would then have to be treated as completely independent leagues with independent players. However, that is not the case, neither does the AIFF show any interest in this aspect.
Therefore, development of football through ISL is an absurd notion. Besides, the country harbors many world class academies which are philanthropically involved in identifying and nurturing talent; the best example being the Tata Football Academy. With an extensive scouting and rigorous training program, the academy has been churning out Indian stars since 1987.
All the I league clubs too, have proper academies and recently, several prominent European clubs have established academies in India. Unfortunately, the same bigotry is again exhibited here and the less-acclaimed cities are largely neglected in terms of scouting and infrastructure.
If the AIFF took the trouble to focus on this aspect, we would have a far wider participation int he game. The recent success of various footballers from Punjab, is a taste of the potential the country harbors.
In terms of the impact on the I league, the ISL still shows no credulity. Rather, the organizers along with the AIFF seem to be ridiculing the established I league clubs. Low prize money, lax attempts at media promotion and poor financing have all magically disappeared for the ISL. The bias of the AIFF is really shocking.
There are yet many possible avenues to explore for AIFF. Expanding the leagues, setting up more academies, promoting media coverage, creating more divisions are just a few precincts the Indian FA can explore. The AIFF needs to overlook the commercial advantage and focus on the sporting spirit and international prestige.
The success of Asian nations like Japan on the international stage through non-franchise leagues, is a great source of inspiration. We need to innovate, not invent. The I-league was a perfect compromise between commercialism and sports; that is exactly what we need. We have the tools, we just need to construct and engineered. The AIFF needs to crack out of its idiosyncratic epiphany and focus on developing the existing entities. Only then can Indian Football rise.
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