It is very difficult to sum up what Indian Football is today. On one side is the Indian Super League — the answer to country’s footballing woes as some predicted. The glamour and the star-studded line-ups were supposed to bring a huge change in the mindset of a cricket loving nation and kick-start a new culture of embracing other sports. On the other side is the I-League, supposedly India’s number one professional men’s football league, in complete disarray following the withdrawals of three major clubs. With sponsorships hard to find and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) failing to give assurances on the future of the league, the clubs are facing a crisis situation heading into 2015-16 season. And somewhere lost in between the tug of war is a national football team, that has seen its matches being reduced and its FIFA rankings dilly-dally. Let’s break that down — 12 matches played in 2010, 20 in 2011, 11 in 2012, 12 in 2013, two in 2014 (ISL begins) and nine so far and three more to go in 2015. 12 isn’t a bad number (compared to previous years) but one must not forget that eight came via World Cup qualifiers (AIFF can’t screw that up) and another three to come are the SAFF games. Which means we have had a mammoth ONE international friendly in 2015.
Amidst all the chaos, an interesting story has developed in the heart of Kolkata, the Mecca of football in the country. According to the rule books (such a thing apparently does exist), if the country’s top club (I-League toppers and not ISL) qualifies for the ACL (AFC Champions League) then the 3rd place team earns a place in the AFC Cup play-offs. Last year’s champions, Mohun Bagan will face off against Tampines Rovers (Singapore) on January 27 for a berth in the Champions League. If they make the cut, then the third placed team in last year’s I-League, Royal Wahingdoh, earns a place on the AFC Cup play-offs. But the Shilling-based have pulled out of the I-League, which means East Bengal, the fourth placed side, will now stand a chance to profit from Mohun Bagan’s victory in the play-offs.
The irony is so twisted that it would force a smile out of even the most fanatic football fan. AIFF continues to be Shakespeare, periodically producing drama (mostly when there isn’t a need for it). Last year, the most successful team in I-League history, Dempo FC , got chucked out of the I-League (relegated being the key word used) because a lower placed team Bharat FC had earned themselves a guaranteed stay virtue of being a corporate team. But earlier this year, Bharat FC pulled out the league citing financial reasons. Yes, AIFF kicked out a historic team to ensure a corporate culture in football. And the team packed off after a few months. Ah, that bittersweet after-taste of irony!