The talk in Indian Football circles this week is invariably centered around the Indian Super League – the signing of marquee players like Alessandro Del Piero and whether the start of ISL is the beginning of the end of the I-League. I-League however saw the addition of a new team after the corporate bids were evaluated and while everyone expected the new team to be from Hyderabad, the new team announced turned out to be from Pune. The committee accepted the bid of the Kalyani Group, a global engineering conglomerate, to participate in 2014/15 I-League hereby taking the number of team in the I-League to eleven. While there is every reason to be optimistic from the new club given how Bengaluru FC arrived with a bang in their debut season last season, here are some reason as to why a second team from Pune makes little sense.
Lack Of Enthusiasm In The City
Pune FC has been one of the most professional clubs in the nation and since their inception in 2007 the club has gone from strength to strength finishing second in the 2012/13 I-League. The club featured in the AFC Cup as well last season and despite this the average spectator attendance in their home games was around 2500 per game. With this attendance Pune FC stood seventh among the thirteen clubs way and Bengaluru FC who stood sixth had average attendance of three times that of Pune FC. Pune FC hence despite being active on the social media and having a professional outlook failed to catch the imagination of the people. Most of the crowd that turned up at the Balewadi stadium consisted of school students despite the fact that the matches were mostly played in the evenings under the floodlights unlike the other I-League matches which were played in the afternoon.
It is highly unlikely that the Kalyani group backed team will generate a significant fan base and the fan base is likely to be divided between the two clubs though it may be too early to comment. The rise of Bengaluru FC in part is also due to its fans who found a club to connect with as the city had no I-League since HAL were relegated. A new city probably would have had more chances of associating itself with an I-League rather than Pune which has been unable to connect with Pune FC.
Still Not A Pan India League
Ever since the disbandment of JCT, North India has been devoid of any I-League clubs and the fans in the northern state have been without top flight football. The I-League last season had four clubs from Goa and Kolkata, two clubs from Shillong and Western Maharashtra besides Bengaluru FC . A lot was said last season about the need to make I-League a pan India tournament by encouraging corporate to have team from the parts where I-League was not present. The AIFF also took a decision of limiting the clubs from a particular city which had the clubs from Goa and Kolkata up in protest but no seem to have backtracked on their decision by allowing another club from Pune.
Hyderabad has had a rich football history and a team from the city would have gone a long way in revitalizing the sport in the city. The city has Gachibowli Athletic Stadium which could have been used by the new club for it matches as well for youth development programs which it had promised. The same holds true for Chennai which hasn’t had a top level club since Indian Bank back in the nineties. Essentially the decision by AIFF does nothing to popularize or promote the game in the nation. A new club in either Hyderabad or Chennai or Delhi would have encouraged the youth in these regions to take up the game professionally.
More Fixtures in An Already Crowded I-League
The advent of the Indian Super League has meant that the I-League will start off in the second week of January and will run till the end of April meaning that each club will have to play 20 matches within almost three months. This after the clubs will participate in the Federation Cup from the end of December. The crowded organization of matches is going to have its impact on the clubs and the players and the introduction of the new club has only increased the worries as the clubs will be playing a couple of more matches.
The AIFF’ s decision to include another club from Pune appears to be one made in haste as their is growing uncertainty over the future of the I-League with the way ISL is moving forward and gaining in popularity. It seems that the AIFF introduced the new club just to please the Indian Football fans that it is focused on spreading the I-League as well across the nation and that ISL is not its only focus. AIFF would have done better to introduce a club from a city doesn’ t have an I-League club.