Conor Heffernan provides an insight into Indian football, as it nears the brink of financial collapse despite the marquee arrivals of the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet.
The year is 2010 and the international management group IMG-Reliance has just signed an historic Rs. 700 crore deal with the All India Football Federation to promote India’s faltering domestic football league. The AIFF was staring down the hole of a financial meltdown but the IMG deal seems to have saved the day.
IMG-R are expected to save the I-League, the Indian top-flight and make it economically viable for the teams involved. The timing couldn’t be better. By 2010 few I-League clubs are making anything close to a profit and while the traditional make up of the League is being challenged by new emerging Clubs, viewership numbers are faltering. It is in one word…a disaster.
Fast forward three years and the situation is much different. IMG-R have decided to cut their losses with the I-League and establish their own league – an Indian Super League. This new League will be a two-month long tournament designed to promote Indian football and gain more fans for the beautiful game in India.
So far it’s working. The League has yet to kick off but the media coverage has dwarfed anything that the I-League has gotten in recent years. How have they done it? Simple. They brought in superstar names…big names from yesteryear like Del Piero, Anelka, Trezeguet, and Pires. It’s like looking back at your favorite ‘90s memories. Star names such as Zico, Marco Materazzi and ahem…Peter Reid (just kidding Reidy!) are managing the teams. The ISL is set to debut on the 12th of October and there is a buzz surrounding Indian football.
Yet not everyone is happy with this development. In fact some of the I-League clubs are furious. The entire structure of the I-League has been thrown into jeopardy thanks to the ISL. The smaller clubs in the I-League are staring down the barrell of a gun as many of their fans are moving allegiance to the ISL. The ISL is being heralded as a saviour of Indian football but few are asking about the ramifications it will have for the I-League.
Many of the clubs in the I-League are making marginal profits at best. The ISL will divert the money away from the I-League. The pittance that is left for the I-League could spell the end for many of its clubs. Currently the vast majority of clubs’ budgets in the I-League go towards wages and transfers. Little is left for long-term investment meaning that there is little left over for grass roots development. Simply put, if the situation doesn’t change India’s future footballers will not be nurtured.
Coupled with this, the I-League has lost two of its biggest clubs in recent years. In 2010, prior to the IMG-R deal, Mahindra United, the most decorated Mumbai club, disbanded when Mahindra realized they weren’t really going to be sustainable as a professional outfit. Now they focus solely on grass roots. In few other places would a team have to make such a decision. One year after Mahindra United’s exit, JCT FC, North India’s most successful club, also said goodbye to the game. Imagine Chelsea and Man United disbanding? Inconceivable, yet it has happened in India.
Clubs are rightly worried and have been calling for a change. Under the current system the vast majority of revenue from the I-League goes to the League’s marketing partners. Imagine SkySports taking a cut of Chelsea’s match day revenue. It just wouldn’t happen but it’s happening in India and it’s damaging the I-League’s remaining clubs.
Calls for greater professionalism and a release from the Marketer’s pockets have fallen on deaf ears. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) have done little to assure India’s clubs that matters will improve. Rumours are emerging of an Indian Premier League emerging after the ISL kicks off. The future doesn’t appear bright for the I-League. Last year the IMG-R plans for the ISL were opposed by the I-League clubs acting under the name IPFCA. The IPFCA strongly opposed the ISL, and for a while it appeared that they would succeed. Soon however cracks began to emerge in the IPFCA. Critics of IMG-R allege that certain clubs were offered incentives for supporting the ISL. Within the space of months the IPFCA fell apart and IMG-R pounced. The ISL was announced and will be kicking off in less than a month. The I-League is now on the brink of collapse. No one wants to touch it, especially with the ISL now a force in Indian football. At the time of writing the I-League is still desperately searching for corporate finance in the League. Such finance isn’t coming. The ISL could be the death nail for the I-League.
Let’s face facts. India is a country of 1.2billion people and has a football team ranked 158th in the world. It’s struggling to say the least. The Country isn’t producing enough quality players relative to its size. Will the ISL help the situation? The answer appears grim. A two-month football tournament doesn’t exactly scream long-term investment. Why should clubs invest in grassroots when the ISL popularity is based on its ability to sign old big-name superstars? What’s the answer? Clubs from Europe have offered to step in and develop the Indian game but such projects have been criticized in the past for demanding huge fees from the players they train and being accessible only for the rich. Plans to continue the ISL past this season means that the possibility of India having no grass roots structure or proper foundation for that matter could be a real possibility.
Instead of developing the Indian League, India’s footballing authorities have decided to push an Indian footballing project with teams owned by Rupert Murdoch and others. Do such individuals care about the future of Indian football? Time will tell.
On the 12th of October, Alessandro Del Piero, Nicolas Anelka and David Trezeguet will step out for the historic opening of the ISL. They will be joined by other expats such as Josemi, the former Liverpool defender, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg. The eyes of the world will be on the ISL, including my own. While we are reliving our past by watching our favourite players from yesteryear just remember that the ISL is effectively trying to kill off the domestic game in India and replace it with a heartless money making exercise.
Will it work? Probably. Is it worth it? That depends on who you ask. For men like Rupert Murdoch it has the potential to be a gold mine. For Wim Koevermans, India’s National Team Manager, it could spell the death of India’s footballing future.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.