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What (Not) To Expect From The AIFF Ex-Co. Meeting!

Monday, 24 November 2014|Chiranjit Ojha

At the post-match ceremonies after ISL matches, the host make sure to parrot a line to the assembled thousands to start the proceedings, “The organizers, IMG-Reliance, would like to thank the AIFF for their continued support in developing Indian football.” Officially this is a gesture of courtesy but the implications are less than subtle. It’s like saying thanks to guests for attending your party. In ideal circumstances, AIFF would be the one saying it to their multitudes of sponsors or “partners.”


Not that it bothers the good people at Football House. There were a few annoyed whispers about the IMG-R officials doing things on their own without even informing AIFF, but they disappeared when the attendance stats came in. Indian Super League, it turned out, is the most popular football tournament in Asia; 5th in the world. The success is unprecedented and undoubtedly a huge leap forward for Indian football. Most significantly, in cities like Delhi, Chennai, Guwahati and Kochi, where the I-League has no presence, the ISL franchises have regularly attracted throngs of fans: a solid gain for the sport’s domestic fanbase.


Even in Pune and Mumbai, where the I-League clubs have failed to gain a significant following, fans have turned up in large number to support their local franchises. For the very first time, in terms of attendance and TV ratings, Indian football is scoring numbers comparable to that of cricket. AIFF President Praful Patel is visibly happy with how things have turned out. General Secretary Kushal Das is full of praise for ISL, saying I-League has much to learn from it. Their happiness is justified. After 77 years of hard work, AIFF is finally seeing football becoming a major sport in all parts of the country. We are truly witnessing a football season that may prove to be the turning point in the history of Indian football.


Here’s the thing: in this historical season, the number of tournaments organized by AIFF so far is... zero. Not very flattering for the governing body: after all their efforts failed to make Indian football take the proverbial flight, popularity and prosperity came flooding in the first moment they sat back and let IMG-Reliance take the wheel. In fact, they got so caught up in reveling at the glory that is ISL that they forgot all about the I-League 2nd Division and U-19, which were scheduled to begin in November and September respectively.


So, as the AIFF Executive Committee sits down for a chat with representatives from the I-League clubs on Monday, the least we can expect is for AIFF to break out of their mute spectator phase and come clean about specific dates when these tournaments will be held. But the question is, can we expect anything more than the run-of-the-mill general announcements? Will there be pro-active steps taken to improve the brand value of I-League? Will they undertake some innovative developmental plans? What about the clubs? Will they pledge to take new measures to spread the game further?


In a word: unlikely. The delayed start of the ISL has squeezed an already shortened football season down to a bare minimum and AIFF is already at a loss trying to accommodate every tournament it is supposed to organize. It has already resulted in a ridiculous Federation Cup fixture list where teams are required to play 6 matches in 12-13 days. If the players think playing a match in ISL every 4-5 days was hectic, Fed Cup is where things will get real for them. Immediately after that, I-League will commence, again with a congested schedule in order to wrap up by May. AIFF will have its resources stretched thin trying to tuck I-League 2nd Division and U-19 somewhere in between. There’s not much room for gaining ground.


As for the clubs, they are in their own little hells. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan are still trying to recover their club accounts that got frozen by ED during the Saradha Scam probe. Both clubs have had a senior official arrested by CBI for involvement in the same scam. Thus, we can’t exactly expect them to be vocal about all-encompassing issues at this point. Dempo and Shillong Lajong are knee-deep in their partnerships with ISL franchises, which is bound to take priority because of the influx of revenue. Pune FC, meanwhile, have a different fish to fry. The popularity of ISL franchise Pune City FC already has them in a corner, and now the new I-League expansion club, owned by Kalyani Group, will give them further competition in wooing the local supporters.


The new club, unveiled this Sunday as Bharat FC, is off to a somewhat decent start. They have roped in a decent coach in Stuart Watkiss, and the statements from Kalyani Group about how they want to build an “ultra-professional football club” and compete with the best in Asia sound promising and ambitious, and they certainly have the money to back it up. But they have an entirely new club to build, along with its own academy, junior teams, training facilities and the lot.


They also face the mammoth task of building up a new brand and attract new fans. This means an aggressive marketing campaign and sustained connection with the community. They can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes that Pune FC committed and ended up with a near-empty stadium. Fortunately, they have the strong example of Bengaluru FC that can be followed.


Speaking of Bengaluru FC, they have bigger fish to fry. After the on and off field success in their debut season, they are now going to play in the Asian level, and there’s a potential move to a larger stadium to look at. They have successfully built a loyal following and done great to keep ISL away from their turf, but their season average attendance of 7,068 will fall short in a stadium with 45,000 seats. So they face a challenge to exceed themselves once again.


So, what we are likely to see in the meeting is a lot of bickering over the fixture as clubs try to bag themselves TV-friendly slots with as much rest time as possible. We’ll see them coming out with the routine plans and courses of action. But the chance to see something new, some real change in attitude from the clubs or AIFF in the wake of the success of ISL, is slim.


But this season had the perfect set-up for AIFF to take their act to the next level, especially in terms of developmental projects and tournaments. Only last season they took some constructive steps and increased the time-span of U-19 from one month to three. They even announced big plans for expansion of the age-restricted league to allow all major academies to field their teams. There was a list of 29 teams prepared for this season and it looked like Indian football was finally about to have the large-scale youth platform it craved for so long. But when the time came it was simply put in cold storage along with I-League 2nd Division. As for the planned new leagues, such as the U-15 and the Womens’ League, they have now been pushed to the fringes and there’s little chance to see them materialize before the 2015-16 season.


But why were the 2nd Division and U-19 leagues postponed in the first place? Why couldn’t they run along with ISL? It’s not like they were premier tournaments that would give the ISL a run for its money. Few players from 2nd Division clubs are playing in ISL and the U-19 league has no bearing whatsoever on the ISL proceedings. So why couldn’t they go on? It would have made sense to get done with them so that AIFF have less on their plate once the ’Block Season’ (a colloquial term some journalists use to refer to the ISL window) is up and regular football resumes.


There are two possible explanations. The first is that AIFF has grown too dependent on IMG-Reliance in organizational matters. We already know that they have a stronghold over AIFF. The partnership deal practically allows them to control all the cash; even private donations and FIFA grants to AIFF go straight to IMG-Reliance. As marketing partners they look after the major brands associated with AIFF, including sponsorship and television deals. As event managers they handle much of the groundwork to organize tournaments like Federation Cup, while in I-League the clubs organize their own home games. It’s possible that as ISL drew near, IMG-Reliance put their entire focus on the mega event and could not spare resources for the I-League 2nd Division and U-19. AIFF, overly reliant on IMG-R for organizing major events, failed to do it on their own, hence they had to be postponed.


The second, and more unpleasant, explanation is that IMG-Reliance decided not to hold them at that time for propaganda purposes. You see, the ISL has drawn some criticism for lacking concrete developmental aspects. Its franchises don’t have U-19 teams, their grassroots programmes aren’t that far-reaching. They also employ significantly less number of Indian players in the first team than I-League clubs. And long before the inaugural season went underway, it was clear that there wasn’t much of a chance for it to produce local new stars, fresh young faces that made their mark for the first time in ISL. This does not reflect well on their brand.


At a situation like this, if the U-19 league was allowed to take place in September, the I-League clubs would have the chance to pick up the most promising players from there and feature them in their first teams come January. That would rob ISL of the opportunity to be the one to “introduce” these fresh young talents at the senior level. Hence, it made sense to force those tournaments to run alongside I-League, so that ISL becomes their natural next step in the football ladder, and helps those “Emerging Player of the Match” awards gain a bit more relevance.


Whatever the reason behind the postponement of the 2nd Division and U-19 leagues, the fact is that it has landed AIFF in a precarious situation. The Block Season will only end 3 weeks into December and at that point the Praful Patel & Co will have about 6 months to organize Federation Cup, I-League, I-League 2nd Division as well as I-League U-19. Regional tournaments like the IFA Shield will also have to be accommodated somewhere in between. Not to mention that there’s the matter of the national team as well; but hopefully they are an optional thing so AIFF can ignore them for a while.


So that’s where we are at. Instead of taking flight in the wake of ISL’s success, come December, Indian football will come back to the ground. Not to say it’s all bad though. The addition of Bharat FC can turn out well. Dempo and Shillong Lajong will be bolstered by the revenue coming in from ISL. Financially stable clubs make for a stronger league and a more attractive brand, which might draw more expansion teams in the coming seasons. It’s especially important now I-League not only faces the challenge to match up to the high bar set by ISL, but this is also the last season in the television deal with Ten Sports. Their abysmal production quality has done enough damage to the I-League brand, and the league needs to put up a good show in order to get a better broadcaster next season onwards.


The I-League U-19, too, could prove to be a landmark event this season if AIFF follow through with their new plans. However delayed, it would still become the biggest platform for youth football India has ever seen. With academies going head to head with clubs, this has become a battle for prestige and big-time bragging rights, and there is a mouthwatering prospect for the crème de la crème to emerge from this competition. Expect at least 20 players to be picked up by various clubs and franchises come summer break. 


But when it comes to large-scale improvements and radical changes, this is not the season. The task AIFF face over the next few months is overwhelming. It will either result in them pulling off something of real merit and laying foundations for something greater, or they will fall short and give us a poorly organized season that may seriously hurt the I-League’s brand image and put some of the clubs’ future in jeopardy. Either way, two things are for sure. One: much of the success of this season will depend on actions taken off the field, and two: it’s best not to have your hopes sky-high.