Relegation and promotion not an option for overhauled Indian Super League

There’d be very few people that would suggest there are similarities between football in India and Australia. However, the scenario playing out in the world’s second most populous country will be awfully familiar to many in Australia.


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In a country dominated by cricket, football, which is hugely popular in pockets of the country, is still trying to find its feet. The launch of the Indian Super League created headlines across the world, with its list of high-profile, but ageing marquee players, and superstar owners, including cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar.

But it was in essence a rogue league, sitting outside the control of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the structures of the AFC and FIFA.

All that is about to change, however.

The AIFF is proposing a radical overhaul of India’s league structure that would see the ISL become the officially recognised top tier league in the country, relegating the I-League (currently recognised as the top division) and its nine teams to second division status (to be rebranded as League One), while a new third-tier competition (League Two) will also be created.

But here’s the catch – there will be no promotion and relegation between the Indian Super League and the new League One (only between League One and League Two).

The might of the Indian Super League has relegated some of Asia’s most historic clubs – namely Mohun Bagan and East Bengal – to the second tier with no chance of promotion.

Sound familiar?

Their only glimmer of hope may be a plan to expand the ISL from eight teams to 12, which many have interpreted as a sign that the I-League’s three biggest clubs (Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru) will be admitted into an expanded ISL competition. The only sticking point may be the AIFF’s insistence they pay a franchise fee and go through a formal tender process to do so.

Understandably, the proposal has been met with fierce resistance.

“Indian football can’t be without Mohun Bagan or East Bengal,” Mohun Bagan general secretary Anjan Mitra told local media. “We are the only clubs in the country with highest fan base and any move to keep either of the two out of the Indian Super League will be opposed.”

Shanti Ranjan Dasgupta, an official from East Bengal, agreed.

“Clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have contributed immensely to Indian football for many years,” said Dasgupta. “It is insulting for clubs like us to have to follow a bidding process to join the ISL.”

One of the regions in India where football is most popular is the state of Goa. A Portuguese colony until as recently as 1961, and with a population of just 1.4 million people, making it one of the smallest states in India, it is home to as many as five professional football clubs.

I-League side Sporting Clube de Goa, modelled on their Portuguese namesakes, has been one of the most vocal opponents of the AIFF’s proposal and their CEO Victor Fernandes told The World Game they felt ambushed by the AIFF’s announcement.

Since the inception of ISL the AIFF officials, especially the President Mr. Praful Patel, repeatedly stated that I-League was the premier competition of the country and that the interest of the I-League clubs would be taken care of and they would be consulted in the event of any change,” he said.

“So we felt that we were ambushed when the proposal was announced.”

Fernandes confirmed to The World Game that he had spoken to the other I-League clubs, but there was no united front, with some clubs openly supporting the proposal.

“The I-League clubs are not united on this issue,” he said.

”Three of the nine clubs have openly welcomed the proposal – DSK Shivajians, Shillong Lajong FC and Bengaluru FC – while Mumbai FC is non-committal.

“But both the Kolkata clubs, namely Mohun Bagan and Kingfisher East Bengal, and we along with the other Goan Clubs – Salgaocar FC and Dempo SC – have opposed the proposal.

“Strong opposition has also come from respected former footballers and former Indian national team captains like P.K. Nannerjee and Chuni Goswami who vehemently attacked the proposal.”

And according to Fernandes the strong backlash has had an impact.

“AIFF has now backtracked, saying that it is only a proposal on paper (and is) open for debate.”

Across town, FC Goa, the Goan representative in the ISL, share a different opinion.

“We are generally pleased with the announcement and believe it’s a positive move from a structural point of view,” FC Goa CEO Sukhvinder Singh told The World Game.

“For the ISL clubs particularly, it allows the clubs to move from an event orientation to a league orientation. While the league successfully runs for a period of three to four months, the downtime of eight months doesn’t allow for a lot of development to take place.”

While Singh appreciates the difficult position the I-League clubs are placed in, he believes there is room in Goa for all clubs.

“While FC Goa is what it is today, it is also because of the vast number of footballing units, teams and clubs who have kept the football culture and philosophy alive in the state.

“We associate and do not compete when it comes to football development. The state is not big but the football culture is.

“I think what we have done well is united the state of Goa. When we play our matches, our stands are packed to the rafters and we have fans coming from every corner of the state to back the team.

“We are a truly community driven club and we have struck a chord with the non-Goans and neutrals alike.”

If India is to develop it needs a united front. Sadly, it is anything but at the moment.

* The AIFF were approached for comment, but did not respond to a request for an interview.

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6 min read
Published 15 June 2016 at 2:45pm
By Paul Williams
Source: SBS