Lessons From Block Season: What’s At Stake For I-League Club

Saturday, 27 December 2014|Chiranjit Ojha

The Indian Super League has come to an end. In the ever-dry landscape of Indian football, where the fans thirsted and thirsted for one bit of positive step, a little bit of improvement and the slightest slice of something new, ISL brought in a sudden rainfall, a flood of glamour, excess and eyeballs. From being used to seeing empty stands on a poorly produced telecast with dreadful colour scheme aided by sleep-inducing commentary, there was a flurry of top quality organising and broadcast complemented by loud, filled-to-the-brink stands.


Adorned by heavyweight corporations, cricket and Bollywood stars, the gala tournament was a spectacle from the beginning till it’s very final minutes, and the astonishing title-clinching goal by unlikely hero Mohammed Rafique was a perfect metaphor for the event’s success story. The fourth highest attendance in the world among domestic tournaments... highest in Asia.


Live telecast in half a dozen languages, international broadcast arrangements, major columns in the sports pages of national dailies. The game’s most prominent personalities talked about the ISL and praised the effort. In its more than a century’s worth of trying hard glorious history, Indian football has never received attention on a grand scale like this.


And now that it’s over and the large sound boxes and DJ booths and synchronized fireworks systems have been removed from football (or cricket) pitches, we are faced with a precarious and uncomfortable prospect to contemplate about: the Indian football season.


You see, other football playing countries have two kinds of seasons when it comes to the beautiful game: the football season where everybody from all divisions goes out and kicks around a round-shaped ball, and the off season where for whatever reason they stay home or go on a holiday. They also have those “international breaks” from time to time when everyone plays for their national teams instead of club sides but those are short and far in between to make sure the leagues and cups can go on somewhat smoothly.


But India, being the diverse country we are, have an extra kind of seasons: The Block Season. This two-and-a-half month long phenomenon causes all professional tournaments organized by the country’s governing body to cease and bugger off while a group of private corporations hold their own tournament. Problem is, once the block season is done and dusted, we are left with a fairly short window for the football season.


What you are left with is less than 6 months to hold the I-League, the Federation Cup, regional tournaments like the IFA Shield and all that. Let’s say you manage to fit all that in. You revoke the license of a club or two to trim the I-League and make clubs play 6 matches in 12 days in the Federation Cup but all of that is fair as long you manage to clock all the games in. But still, you have this thing called the national team to occasionally worry about (monthly, in fact: every time the latest FIFA rankings come out). And with the World Cup qualifiers just a few months away, some people might ask for annoying stuff like a training camp and friendlies and what not. Where does all that fit?


That’s not to deny the bounty of positives that the ISL has brought in. It has proved beyond doubt that football is universally liked in India, and regularly drawn throngs of fans in cities like Delhi, Chennai, Kochi and Guwahati where the I-League does not have any presence. IMG-Reliance and Star Sports advertised the hell out of the ISL brand and left no stone unturned to pull in every eyeball they within their (gigantic) reach. Indeed, at one point it felt less like promotion and more like propaganda. “Birth of Indian football”? Ja, mein Führer. All this is in complete contrast with a certain network that has been making a mess of I-League telecast for some years now.


Even the players majorly lucked out. Extra money, for one. Plus the benefit of playing next to world class players, however past their prime they may be. Many players have spoken about the drastically different coaching methods practiced by some coaches in ISL and how it has helped them out. But the biggest advantage is having IMG to represent them. In a global sport like football,  where growth is measured against more than two hundred competing nations and thousands of top-tier clubs, having connections all over the world and deep-rooted business ties is crucial to ensure the players get the best kind of training and platform to exhibit their skills.


And this is where AIFF and other Indian clubs have historically sucked big time. The way the sport is played, taught and managed in this country is largely out of sync with the rest of the world, and it’s one of the major reasons Indian players hardly ever manage to find success abroad. Forget developed footballing nations in the West, even countries like Singapore and Thailand have much more modernised training systems in place. IMG, with its experience in football management at all levels, can make a difference.


It’s obvious they have worked hard to create interst among foreign clubs for players like Sandesh Jhingan, Romeo Fernandes and Lalrindika Ralte. If this materialises in real opportunities to make a name for themselves on a bigger platform, why not? Their grassroot programme has been launched with much promise and publicity. Whether it will strategically employ scouts to pick up talented footballers from all corners of the country at a tender age or end up as a chain of posh football schools in elite neighbourhoods with sky-high fees – only time will tell.


Not that it will affect their main agenda in any way, though. IMG-Reliance and Star, who took their promotional campaigns for ISL to the level of propaganda, have effectively captured a new generation of middle-class urban football fans with relatively deep pockets who have been largely ignorant of I-League and other domestic tournaments until now and equate Indian football with ISL. Their marketing approach, professionalism, quality of showcasing and level of success... everything has been a polar opposite of what AIFF and their official broadcaster Ten Action have managed to accomplish. As a result, the future of Indian football now hinges completely on the ISL, and the All India Football Federation, who have quite stellar track record at being stagnant, weak administrators, are now reduced to mere puppets.


So, what happens now? Well, the football season, that’s what. The Federation Cup begins tomorrow, I-League kicks off in January. Things will mostly go back to as they were. Ten Action will lazily pick and choose which matches to show (although the telecast quality should improve now that Grey Mind has been hired for the production). The national media will once again relegate Indian football to tiny boxes in the sports pages. Lack of promotion and poor organization will be apparent again and nearly-empty stands will be on show. But AIFF will do enough to make sure the matches are played so that they can show a full season on paper come summer break.


The effects of the Block Season will only be apparent a month or two into I-League. Players who regularly played in the ISL will show signs of fatigue from the hectic schedule and get injury-prone (quite a few of them are already missing Federation Cup). This will negatively affect the national team’s performance in the World Cup qualifiers and friendlies (if any). But any attempt to point the finger at ISL will be cleverly diverted. What on earth did we expect? A World Cup berth? We are ranked 171st, for Pete’s sake! Any mild fan outrage that might arise will be cooled down in no time by yet another bright, flashy and aggressive marketing campaign to herald the arrival next Block Season. And the cycle will go on, year after year, rinse and repeat, as long as we continue to have a domestic football system split into two.


There isn’t much of a chance of ISL and I-League being unified before the initial 10 year contract with the franchises runs out. A few franchises view a unified league as detrimental to their profitability (ATK, for example, most of whose supporters are primarily East Begnal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan fans). Other ISL teams are mulling a foray into mainstream club football sans any concrete action. The AIFF top officials are displaying their perfect political wits with contradictory statements: Praful Patel says no merger, Kushal Das predicts unification in 5 years. So, expect this newfound stagnation to last until one of these things happens:


Best Case Scenario: the popularity of the ISL trickles down to I-League as the clubs step up with their own promotional campaigns to draw more spectators to the matches. TV ratings go up too, thanks to floodlights and prime-time kick-offs. The ISL franchises set up their grassroot programs and build Under 17 and Under 19 teams. Soon they realise there is money to be made from having a longer league and playing in AFC tournaments. So we have a peaceful and exciting union of I-League and ISL.


Worst Case Scenario: the advent of ISL takes supporters and sponsors away from some of the traditional clubs and the I-League in general. Some of the less fortunate clubs are set on a path of slow death as they fail to compete with the money power and marketing resources of the ISL franchises. Thus, as the clubs fold, the I-League gets shorter and shorter and the ISL, adding more franchises, grows larger. At one point, it would become impractical to have a seperate league for the few stronger I-League clubs that still survived: so they would be taken into the ISL fold.


Either way, there is some kind of a light at the end of the rainbow, provided the clubs make it through this somewhat schizophrenic transition period. But to make that happen, lessons taken away from the Block Season must be put to practice. More aggressive promotion, edicated club merchandise shops, online ticket sales, evening kick-offs and a greater engagement with the community to promote a fan cultutre that today’s urban youth can identify with: these are steps that should have been taken by the clubs years ago. But for whatever reason, they were ignored, which created a major disconnet from the fans. ISL came in to fill that void and the difference is there for the world to see: they surpassed 15 lakh in-stadia attendance in 60 matches while I-League in its 2013-14 season only managed to get a combined attendance of 8.76 lakh in 156 matches.


Since we all know AIFF isn’t exactly the epitome of reliability when it comes to doing something to increase the brand value of the I-League, the onus is on the clubs. If they still fail to realize the need to change their old ways and keep up with the times, they will face an uphill battle to survive.


That’s not to say there aren’t any positive signs, though. The I-League itself has become more competitive than ever. The last season saw a memorable title race and a fierce relegation dog-fight. There were lots of goals and a number of upsets; with Bengaluru FC going on to have the mother of all debut seasons. I-League has actually grown stronger with the injection of fresh new clubs like Pune FC, Shillong Lajong and now Bharat FC. While there are question marks over the practicality of having two clubs in Pune, the newest club in the block has shown intent with their recruitment of players and coaching staff. They are going to be a wild card in the league this season, much like Bengaluru FC were last time. The old horses like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Sporting Clube de Goa and Dempo have put up formidable squads as well; but many of them are set to have problems with players experiencing post-ISL burnouts which adds to the unpredictability factor.


Indeed, one look at the team list tells you there are no passengers this time. Each of these 11 clubs are serious and ambitious. What we are looking at is potentially the most tight contest in I-League history; both for the title and relegation survival. Over the next two weeks, the Federation Cup will give us a nice trailer of what the season is going to be like; but it’s safe to say that there’s a good chance it will turn out to be more exciting than the last.


You see, I-League, by itself, has actually seen an upward swing in the last few years. It’s gotten more competitive, new teams have come up, the approach has become more professional with the introduction of the licensing system. Had IMG-Reliance decided to help I-League expand to newer cities and get more visibility in the media, it could have become a better tournament than ISL, albeit one that Mrs Ambani couldn’t own, or claim the lion’s share of franchise fees. Hence the emphasis on a separate “league.”


But the runaway success of ISL means that Indian football now depends too much on ISL, and a possible unified league will abandon the I-League brand in favour of the ISL. These circumstances make the I-League look like a sinking ship, one that the clubs are struggling to survive.


The I-League, however, is about the clubs, not the other way around like ISL. Here, the clubs organize their own home matches. They don’t have to buy players from a central pool set up by the league’s owners. They have the option of qualifying on merits alone, without paying fat franchise fees. They also have a life outside and beyond the tournament. In short, the I-League is a real, flesh and blood football league, and the only national league we have in this country, no matter what the propaganda says or implies.  It’s the I-League that offers a qualification to pan-Asian championships. It’s the biggest domestic tournament Indian football has, featuring thrice as many Indian players as ISL. It’s the I-League trophy one has to lift to be called the Champions of India.


It’s for that pride that the clubs will take to the field, with the hope that with some efforts they can turn things around. Bengaluru FC showed the way with their marketing and nurturing of the fan culture and other clubs are showing signs of following their lead. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are setting up merchandise shops and online stores. Mumbai FC have finally got a ground in their own city they can call home. Most of the stadiums to be used this season have floodlights. Who knows, with a little bit of effort, things can finally come together, and we may be on our way towards the best case scenario I described earlier rather than the worst.


So that’s what the clubs will try to accomplish when they take to the field tomorrow and finally kick-off the top division domestic season: to legitimize a legacy they have all been a part of that is under the threat of sabotage. To prove that a football match is much more than a face-off between two celebrity team owners. To show that the birth and death of Indian football does not lie in a Block Season.


The stakes are higher than ever, but isn’t that just what you want from a real football league.