Indian football fans are going through a predicament. On one side they have a stubborn football federation that has, for the lack of a better word, sold its soul (a.k.a marketing and broadcasting rights) to a private party partnership known as the FSDL (Football Sports Development Ltd), co-owned by Reliance, IMG and Star Sports, and is therefore now a pawn for the big corporates.
On the other side is a movement fast gathering pace against this apparently biased federation and its private owners, headed by I-League teams such as former champions Minerva Punjab, and Manipur’s lifeline NEROCA FC.
What’s so difficult about choosing sides, you might ask? Surely one has to fight the corporates and ensure football belongs to the mass. Problem is that it’s not so rosy on the other side either. FSDL’s new league, the Indian Super League (ISL), paved the way for more opportunities in the sport. The facilities became better, the salaries higher and generally everything got more “professional”.
Add to that the numerous problems associated with the I-League clubs championing the save Indian football campaign. Minerva Punjab, for example, has come in the news for allegedly not paying its footballers and altering their age to participate in tournaments. Not to forget its polarising owner Ranjit Bajaj – a former Roadie who certainly doesn’t know how to mince his words.
The football fans in the country are now caught in a classic Devil vs the Dead Sea conundrum – who do we side with when both seem awfully corrupt?
A brief history of the feud
As far as the mismanagement of the sport goes, there is no specific timeline (forever?) but it is fair to say the recent controversies had its origin on December 22nd evening when I-League teams received an email from the All India Football Federation.
The Hero I-League, the country’s top-flight football league, were recently informed that STAR SPORTS – exclusive broadcasters of the Hero I-League, would broadcast a select 30 matches including the final three last round matches LIVE & EXCLUSIVE on Star Sports 3 for the second half of the league beginning December 29.This would take the number of games of the ongoing 12th edition to be broadcast live to 80 out of a total of 110 games. The games to be broadcast live from December 29, are given in the table below. Four more games are to be added to the schedule at a later date — AIFF
The I-League clubs were shocked that their broadcaster had decided to cut short their coverage mid-way through what had promised to be another exciting season. Not so surprisingly, Kolkata clubs were the least affected, while Minerva was the worst hit. The conspiracy theorists had their reasons to suspect revenge. The Punjab club had expressed their displeasure in the Facebook-live type coverage of their match against Chennai City in December. Was this Star Sports not-so-subtly reminding them who owns football in the country?
Dear @StarFootball, we’ve received numerous mails from our fans regarding the broadcast quality of our match against @ChennaiCityFC. #IndianFootball deserves better and honestly, we are tired of this step-motherly attitude towards @ILeagueOfficial. pic.twitter.com/q9FGGIwQw2
— MINERVA PUNJAB FC (@minervapunjabfc) December 18, 2018
But the decision couldn’t have simply stemmed out of a Twitter rant. Minerva’s tweets probably acted as a catalyst but this intent was clear – can’t let I-League outperform ISL. You can’t blame Star Sports, can you? They spent millions to kick-start a league. They even got the federation to schedule I-League at odd hours to reduce the eyeballs. Yet, the league kept growing on.
In simpler terms, the contract signed between AIFF and FSDL granted the latter all the rights to pull the plug on the I-League to promote their own product (the ISL).
While it was within the law, the move marked the beginning of a bolder attacking strategy by the FSDL who had until then taken a slightly subtler route to derail I-League as the number one league in the country.
The I-League clubs, especially Minerva, weren’t going to let FSDL and the AIFF have a free run at this blatant, non-inclusive restructuring of Indian football though. On December 28th, they held a press conference in Kolkata where they, along with representatives from Gokulam Kerala FC and Chennai City FC, explained to a set of journalists what FSDL was doing to the country’s football and why everyone needed to act quickly to save the sport.
They even made a cute Noam Chomsky ‘Manufacturing Consent’ rip off to explain what FSDL was doing to the sport.
The I-League clubs even wrote to the AIFF requesting a meeting with football president Praful Patel. But they never got an answer which further showcased how undeterred AIFF was in their bid to make ISL number one. The clubs even suggested a possible merger of the leagues but apparently, even that went unheard. And then the clubs, including Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, decided not to turn up for the Super Cup as a mode of protest. That led to more controversies and then the latest social media reactions where Minerva owner Bajaj said he will be forced to shut down the club because AIFF ensured the Kalinga stadium in Orissa wouldn’t be available for their home AFC matches.
Of course, these stories aren’t one-sided either. AIFF has come openly declared that Minerva is free to find another stadium for their AFC matches. Praful Patel recently said he had communicated to the I-League clubs that he was willing to talk to them in April.
So on one side, there is the AIFF, the FSDL and on the other side, there are certain I-League clubs with a not-so-pleasant history themselves. How do we take sides especially when India is going through a good period with the national team? The men’s team have shown great improvements in the last two years so why the question is a system that’s showing a steady upward rise?
What a lot of Indian football fans don’t understand is that it’s not a two-way battle for the future of Indian football. There is a bunch of influential football clubs and players, none more so than Bengaluru FC having played in the I-league and then jumped to ISL bandwagon, sitting on the fence carefully observing what is going on.
Just a thought that I’m throwing out there! pic.twitter.com/8r0SlKdudk
— Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11) November 20, 2018
You’d think the ISL clubs would be sided with the FSDL. The AFC Champions League spot still goes to the I-League champion so an end to the league or declaring the ISL as the top league would be a huge advantage from ISL teams.
But things aren’t so black and white. There is the dwindling interest and a missing connect in the Indian Super League.
There are rumours FC Pune City might shut down or relocate to another city with the club struggling to attract an audience. Delhi is contemplating moving to a smaller stadium. ATK continues to be overshadowed by the big Kolkata teams while NorthEast United can’t get anywhere near the support Aizawl or NEROCA gets. I-League means guaranteed support and interest in the game. Something the new clubs want desperately.
1) ISL clubs can side with FSDL. Kill I-league, start fresh and hope the support grows exponentially.
2) ISL clubs can bat for some changes and bring the I-League clubs on board which would be definitely mean improved interest.
As it stands, AIFF is angling towards option one, but want the Kolkata clubs on board because they bring a lot of support. The Kolkata giants might take the plunge but what is supposedly stopping them is the exorbitant fee (believed to be around 15 crores) that clubs have to pay FSDL every year.
If the ISL clubs are smart, this is an opportunity to reform their league. What if these clubs, some going through financial difficulties, struggling to break even in what is still a developing market, demand FSDL to reduce the annual fee. Or even better, ask them to take it all away. The ISL isn’t living up to its promises and if the league has to become the top division, it will have to introduce promotion and relegation, again violating the promises to the clubs from FSDL. A restructuring of the league gives all the teams an option at renegotiating their terms. And considering the past five seasons, there will be a lot of teams jumping at the first opportunity. An ideal scenario then will have the I-league and ISL teams pressurizing the FSDL to come up with a better plan for the entire football fraternity.
The idea might sound far-fetched as things stand today but the reality of any business venture is to churn out profits and the only way to do it in the foreseeable future for ISL clubs would be to cut down on the FSDL fee and hope I-League clubs bring more eyeballs into what is slowly becoming a stale league.
As a fan, unfortunately, the situation is like being in the centre of a three-way Mexican standoff between Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef (that iconic ending scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). All you can do is to watch how things pan out.
An Animal Farm
What is certain at the moment is that football in the country doesn’t seem to be in the right hands. The Federation has continuously let down the sport for years while the FSDL has emerged as a dictator with zero respect to how the small clubs that ensured the game thrived despite the lack of support. The clubs spearheading the protests, despite doing good work, have also been marred with years of age fraud allegations, and other stories such as fraudulent player contracts.
And hence, as a football fan, it is important (more than ever) to support the cause and not necessarily the entity standing up the cause.
Do we want a unified league? Yes.
Do we want more opportunities for footballers and staff? Yes.
Do we want an inclusive football top division that gives a chance for teams like Aizawl or Real Kashmir to compete? Hell yes!
What as fans we should do right now is not to get carried away by any one narrative. All parties can benefit from a better planned, restructured league in the country. We should protest any signs of dictatorship and the blatant misuse of power by the FSDL or AIFF. But we also do not want an Orwellian nightmare of supporting an entity only to realise it was far worse than what we already had. The federation needs some reforms, the teams need better internal management, the system needs to be stricter towards age-old practices and the only way to go about these things might be to get a Lodha Committee-like set up to restructure the entire framework of Indian football.
PS: The opinions expressed are personal and the author does NOT claim to have any inside information. I might be completely wrong in my understanding of things.