Is Dismissing The “Merger” Just a Hoax By AIFF?

Sunday, 14 May 2017|Abhranil Roy

Over the last few months, the ISL and I-League merger has been the hottest topic of discussion in the Indian footballing circuit and finally, now, the saga has seemingly reached a conclusion. Last Saturday, in a meeting in Mumbai attended by representatives from the All India Football Federation (AIFF), IMG-Reliance, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, it was decided that the I-League would continue to be the country’s premier league. The merger has apparently been put on hold indefinitely, and instead, it was proposed that the two leagues would run simultaneously for seven months in a year.


“Mr. Patel informed the representatives that the revised roadmap of India football has not yet been finalized and before a final decision is taken, stakeholders including the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) would be consulted. Indian football has made rapid progress over the last few years and it's important for AIFF to take a long-term view," a statement from the AIFF read.


Now let’s pause for a second and analyze the plausibility of the situation here: India will have two full-fledged leagues running parallel to each other, which is something that has not happened anywhere else in the world so far. Let alone the logistical difficulties, who do you think will watch an ISL game featuring say, Atletico de Kolkata, when there is say, the Kolkata derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan? Also, how will the clubs and franchises find enough players to play for them? Fitting an ISL into an already overpacked and unplanned Indian football calendar has already been causing injuries and severe exhaustion to those who play in both the competitions and one can only fear the melee that will be ensued when both of these competitions run together. Moreover, with overlapping transfer windows, players will naturally lean more towards the ISL which is financially much more awarding than the I-League, which will further hamper the quality of football in the later competition. Player loyalty, fandom, unadulterated and unfettered access to watch the matches from the galleries --- all the qualities which defined the I-League and made it enjoyable despite its poor quality and administrative problems will all go for a toss if such a scenario pans out in the near future.


Another bone of contention that has risen post the meeting is how will the clubs be chosen for playing in the AFC Cup. According to Mr. Praful Patel, the AIFF President, and according to reports emerging from the AFC Congress meeting in Bahrain, it seems the ISL is all set to receive the continental competition slots as well as get recognized by AFC, FIFA and the AIFF. It has also been revealed that the General Secretary of the AGC, Dato Windsor, will be coming to India later in May to make a formal announcement.

The anomaly here is worth noting: if I-League is apparently deemed as the top-tier competition in India, then why will outfits from ISL get a shot at AFC Cup competition? Initially, it was suggested that the top 4 teams from each league would face each other in a Super Cup play-off to determine who will represent Indian in the continental competition. However, that idea has been scrapped as of now, with the Football Sports Development Limited inviting applications from corporate houses to set up 3 more teams in the ISL.


As it stands right now, the AIFF has pulled a smokescreen over everyone and will continue to push for the ISL as the top-level competition in India, with or without the involvement of I-League clubs. The new plans seem to be a temporary way of appeasement for the traditional clubs, and must not be seen as a permanent solution. According to Debabrata Sarkar, the representative of East Bengal in the meeting,” I don't think ISL and I-League can co-exist”.

With Bengaluru FC gearing up to join the ISL, the roadway for the Bengal giants is clear: they will continue to push for more rights, suggesting either one league to feature all 18 teams or for the two leagues to run for 4 months each, and with the I-League having the sole right to send participants to the AFC Cup. The colossal participation fee of the ISL and the ruling to play in a city other than Kolkata is also being strongly objected to; so although the contentious merger has been postponed as of now, do not breathe a sigh of relief : there is a long way to go before a mutually acceptable and beneficial decision is taken and only time will tell how tricky that road will be.