Money. Reputation. Popularity. Credibility. Being the top-tier football league in any nation is no cup of tea. The complications compound when you have two contenders.
A few weeks back, before being confined by the lockdown, I was playing football with my neighbourhood friends. We were joined by a new kid, whose blistering pace caught everyone’s attention. After the match, I asked him what his favourite club was, though the dark blue jersey that he wore, with the “Yokohama Tyres” logo splashed across its front, gave me a fair idea of what the answer would be. And indeed, he excitedly answered “Chelsea!”. We struck up a conversation, and midway through it, I ventured and asked, “Did Mohun Bagan deserve to win the I-League last week?”. All I received was a fumble and a blank expression and graciously veered towards another less “obscure” topic.
Our country is, more often than not, projected as a cricket-crazy nation. But saying that India is not a football-crazy nation would be a terribly wrong statement to make. Indian viewership statistics for foreign football leagues and tournaments – English Premier League, La Liga, UEFA Champions League – are sky-high. Established fan factions of big clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool are present across the country and hold regular screenings. Social media buzzes in excitement before a high stakes match, let’s say between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. In fact, in some regions like West Bengal, Kerala, Goa and the North East, football’s popularity outstrips that of cricket, and one can see open spaces being invaded by enthusiastic local teenage footballers in their Barcelona and Real Madrid jerseys.
Why then, is the response to Indian footballers and Indian professional teams so lukewarm? Why do leagues fail to attract spectators to stadiums and televisions? Why does a kid playing football in a neighbourhood park in the capital of the country not care about Mohun Bagan and the I-League?
Like I mentioned earlier, football is undoubtedly popular in certain areas of the country. The marquee match-up of the Indian football calendar, between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, attracts huge crowds in Kolkata. And in the North East and the South, matches do attract a few thousand spectators. But this pales in comparison when one is reminded of the millions of Indian fans glued to their television sets every weekend to watch European football. Indian national newspapers devote a whole page to cover English football while the results of the Indian football teams are at most relegated to a small corner at the bottom of the page. The Indian football system is certainly not doing very well. Neither in terms of football quality. Nor commercially.
Replacing the National Football League, the I-League was established in 2007 as the country’s top-tier professional football league. It wasn’t a rich “flowing-with-money” league, and the league and its teams were plagued by a lack of funds and sponsors. Not being able to attract top quality players or install full-fledged world-class training facilities meant that the quality of football remained lacklustre. After a relatively good start in the first season, popularity and relevance soon dwindled over the years.
There were 10 teams in the first season of the league, of which only 3 remain currently – Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Churchill Brothers – while the rest of the teams are either newly established ones (example, Gokulam Kerala FC was formed only in 2017) or have risen up from local leagues. Three well established Goan teams – Dempo, Salgaocar and Sporting Club – pulled out of the league citing “lack of vision”. Besides this, many teams have been forced to disband or leave due to financial or organisational issues. The league lacks a consistent set of teams. This coming-in-and-out of participating clubs makes it hard to establish a loyal fan base for the league as well as for the teams.
One could also blame the league’s lousy marketing for its failure to attract audiences. But for successful marketing, you need funds and sponsors. Sponsors only come when the product that is being offered is of assuredly good quality and seems promising and profitable, which is something that the league fails to offer. Consequently, it has failed to attract widespread pan-India popularity. In fact, in 2009, Zee Sports, the official broadcaster of the league cancelled their 10-year contract with the All India Football Federation after concerns were raised by the company that the league was not attracting as many sponsors and viewers as they would have liked.
Then entered into the picture, I-League’s glamorous cousin, the Indian Super League (ISL). With the AIFF strapped of cash, IMG and Reliance came up with a 15 year, 700 crore deal in 2010, which included control of a majority of commercial rights of Indian football – from broadcasting to advertising. As a result of the partnership, ISL was finally launched a few years later, having its first season in 2014. Compared to the I-League, the ISL seemed a success. It attracted a long line of sponsors, Bollywood celebrities, retired Indian sports stars, business conglomerates and was telecast on Star Sports, the most-watched sports channel in the country. Football stars and experts were roped in for commentary as well as post and pre-match analysis. The decent paychecks attracted star players from the I-League and good, if not world-class, players, from foreign leagues, thus taking the quality of football a notch up. Consequently, television viewership and stadium attendances rose too.
But in subsequent seasons, there has been a decline in viewership, popularity and hype. The average attendance in stadiums was 26000 in 2014. In the 2019-20 season, it hovered around 13,000. Also concerning, is the fact that most foreign players stay for only one season, either choosing ISL as a pit stop mid-career or as a last hurrah before retirement.
In 2016, the AIFF revealed their plan to make ISL the first-tier league in the Indian football system, with I-League being the second-tier league, similar to the Premier League and the Championship in England. The plan wasn’t implemented due to opposition from I-League clubs and negotiations are ongoing, with there even being a possibility of a merger. The problem is that most I-League clubs run on a shoestring budget and won’t fill the financial requirements of the ISL. Thus a full merger isn’t possible.
“The I-League has two of the most iconic football clubs in India, and has credibility and some history. The ISL is nothing but glitzy chaos of money. Foreign players come and go after playing one season and domestic players shift frequently. There is no credibility. It should be treated like what it actually is – a football festival, played for a few weeks every year as a form of recreation and entertainment.” opined Manik Ray, a University Of Delhi student, and an I-League fan.
In spite of support from loyalists, the I-League is slowly losing its bid for the first tier. The qualification spot for the AFC Champions League, originally given to the I-League champion, shall now be given to the ISL champion. I-League’s Mohun Bagan, the oldest football club in India, merged with ISL club Atletico De Kolkata this year, and the combined team shall compete in the ISL. The I-League’s average attendance of 9000 loses to ISL’s 13000. ISL clubs have also commenced grassroots development structures for young footballers.
A final arrangement shall soon be reached in the coming months. Undoubtedly, there shall be someone on the losing side and someone on the winning side. But what matters is that in the long run, the real victor shall be Indian football.
Feature Image Credits : Goal.com