The ISL and I-League conundrum that Indian football hardly needs
Strange things have been happening in the world of football. Whoever thought that Italy, a four-time world champion and what is more a country enriched in football traditions, could miss out the next World cup in Russia? Well that that has come true after its shoddy display or better still its opponent Sweden's dogged show in the playoff which saw Italy lose 0-1 in aggregate and for the first time in 60 years this giant will be a spectator instead of a participant in what is acknowledged as the world's greatest competition. However, if latest reports were anything to go by then Italy's hopes may not have fully died out. Latin American qualifier Peru is in danger of being disqualified if FIFA is satisfied that there is government interference in the football affairs in that country. And if that happens the speculation is that the world body would give Italy the lifeline! Can there be greater swings in fortunes?
Equally stranger things have been happening in Indian football! The euphoria of a job well done, that of conducting the World U-17 championship has hardly settled down when the murky side of the sport is back! Not that this is new but what is amusing is that there seems to be no end to the debate on this Indian Super League v I league issue or rather one successful venture (ISL) vs an exercise that has hardly passed muster (I league). Which is more useful? Which has contributed sizably for the betterment of Indian football? Can a country have a dual league system? Questions can continue to be asked but as things are there seems to be no clear cut answer nor even a consensus. Till last year both these events were held at separate dates and that according to the all India Football Federation had caused hardships in the form of player burnouts because players do not get enough rest between the Leagues and this affected national duty. The situation this time is that the ISL and I-league are being held concurrently and so there would be no overlapping of players.
How will this benefit players or the game, it is difficult to state. On the face of it, considering ISL's huge following and investor-interest will this move not undermine the I-league competition further? There is no denying that every football nation's growth in the sport comes from one strong national league. In fact, in the nineties when both the world body and the Asian Federation kept insisting that India should follow suit, the national league (later to be called the I-league) was launched with lot of fanfare. The immediate model was the J-league which had done wonders to football in Japan, which incidentally is one of the Asian qualifiers for the next World Cup. The dramatic improvement in the sport there through a strong club culture which entailed not just the competition but going to the development at the grassroots made the difference for Japan. That is exactly what did not happen in India from the experience till date.
The I-league seemed more a perfunctory exercise it would seem where the leading clubs spend huge money to get foreign recruits for key positions with the aim of keeping the club flag flying high. It is a moot point if this has improved Indian football standards. Whether the clubs had a programme for a strong youth development in place seemed more on paper than in reality. It is a different matter that money alone cannot grab results as Aizawl FC showed. This North East club whose budget at just about Rs two crore was less than the money-tag for a key foreign player in a Kolkata glamour side, could still come with the winning plan to grab the I-league title last season. It was a story of grit and supreme talent winning over financial might. But the point here is not on the cost or the money but the impact that the league leaves. Certainly the win by this Mizoram has opened the window to the talent in this North Eastern sector. Again part reason could be the ISL itself and its franchise that manages the North East United FC. For, one of the aims of ISL has been to open up the talent base in the regions that its franchises are based.
What the I-League as such could not achieve, its richer cousin the ISL has opened the eyes to the wonderful days ahead for up and coming football talents. That is why this Super League has been acknowledged as a major game changer for Indian football. If the crowd is back in the stadia and the passion has returned for the sport then it is this major football programme that has proved the mantra Why, even experts believe so. The current coach of the national team, Stephen Constantine himself has openly said that the ISL had helped him and his assistants to spot some good Indian talents. “ISL provides us the platform to judge,” he had once told a news channel.
Clearly the two Leagues cannot go together on a similar plane. The AIFF itself is aware of this and that is why it had sought the help of the Asian Federation to find a way to merge the two. But how is the big question, considering that the basic concept of ISL has jelled with the Indian requirement and it has been the vehicle of progress for the sport. The effort should be not to dilute this major fixture in the name of finding a solution. It is a tricky situation to be in. But in the meantime by holding the ISL and I-league at the same time one thing is certain the gulf between the two in every sense would only widen leading to more heart burns and bitterness. Whichever way one looked at it, football is not going to be the gainer.