Indian Football is clearly not headed in the right direction after having been ranked 147 by the latest FIFA rankings. So why is it that a country with 1.24 billion citizens is unable to meet the needs of football fanatics all over the county? For a country that feeds fervently on the English Premier League, the Spanish La Liga, the Bundelsiga, the Italian Serie A and International Football, Indian football is in a surprisingly dilapidated state. Though it was pretty evident that an overhaul was much overdue in Indian Football, the steps taken by AIFF in order to restructure the I-League can be termed as ‘regressive’ to say the least.
In order to cut costs, AIFF has proposed a new format for the premier football league in India, the I-League. The I-League, which was played by fourteen teams across the country, on a home and away format as is followed in Europe, will now be played on a conference model with the teams being divided into two groups, namely the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. The top four teams from each group will then play with each other in order to battle for the much coveted crown of Indian Football.
AIFF, the parent football body in India, has disclosed that a total sum of Rs.15 crore was being spent by the federation on the I-League, of which 8 crores was used only to cover the travelling expenditures of the fourteen teams. With the flow of cash fast running dry, AIFF has decided to limit each team’s travelling expenses by clubbing them into two groups based on their geographical location. Though this decision seem to have been taken by a sound businessman weeding out unwanted expenditure from his organization, it cannot, by any possible justification be deemed prudent. Though it is understandable that a football league or any other sporting event must be financially self sustaining, it cannot however cut costs by adopting a model that compromises on its quality and endangers the growth of the sport in the country.
Though the AIFF has turned a negligent eye towards the dangers posed by the new conference model, the clubs vying for the I-League have spoken out in unison, criticizing the parent body for succumbing to partisan interests. It is quite difficult to understand why the AIFF would seek to promote the I-League on a conference model knowing fully well that dividing the teams into two separate groups would only result in a loss of viewership. With sponsors turning increasingly hesitant and the quality of television coverage deteriorating, the AIFF should be aiming to improve the quality of the league instead of succumbing to monetary interests.
With the teams being divided into two different groups and a restriction being imposed on the number of teams that can be fielded by a city/state, the proposed conference model will limit the exposure of Indian football which will in turn stunt the already slow progress rate. Teams will no longer be provided with the opportunity to test their mettle against each and every team in the country as is the norm in most successful football leagues in the world. They will be confined to playing only those teams that are present in their group, thus taking away the sheen from the league, and turning the premier national football league into an awful reflection of a regional tournament. Historic rivalries between the Kolkata duo of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal taking on the Goan trio of Churchill Brothers, Dempo and Salgaocar will be wiped out completely as the teams will not face each other until the later parts of the tournament, thus depriving their fans of the much anticipated football encounters. Fans will no longer be seen thronging the gates of various stadiums to watch their teams play against the best teams in the country. This loss of viewership due to the conference model, though not anticipated by the AIFF, might sound the death knell for the I-League.
Another severe implication of the conference model is that it stunts the growth of Indian football by restricting the sport to two basic geographical regions. As pointed out by Peter Vaz, the president of Sporting Club de Goa, the AIFF should be promoting and developing football in states such as Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh instead of restricting it to two regions. The only logical way forward is to develop and expand the existing league and not merely contain it in those regions where it is already popular and developing.
The shortsightedness displayed by AIFF by adopting the conference model for the I-League will leave the federation out of options in a couple of years as it will initially save them money which in turn might be used for developing the sport, but the federation will not be able to prevent the eventual decline in the quality of football played in the I-League and its viewership. The dwindling sponsorship which has been the root of all problems in Indian Football will run completely dry in the wake of the new developments, thus leaving the AIFF with no other option but to scrap the league.
The conference model which has been designed to make the I-League more economical is definitely not the right way forward for Indian Football. AIFF should be looking for ways to make the league more productive and not look at it as a business enterprise that should be reaping profits. It is high time that the federation woke up to the needs of the country that demands a certain respectable standard of football from its premier league. Though India has a long way to go before it can be considered as a ‘footballing’ nation, the AIFF should focus on developing the sport instead of defiling it and give the fans something to cheer about amidst all the hopelessness.
Written By Guest Author Kumar Saurabh