AS CHENNAIYIN FC WERE CELEBRATING their 2nd ISL triumph last night at the Kanteerava Stadium, a comment made by Bengaluru FC goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu appeared to spoil their joy a little bit, and drew a sharp response from the head coach John Gregory.
After the match was won by Chennaiyin FC 3-2 taming Bengaluru FC at their own ground, the keeper was asked in a TV interview how he would react to the result. Gurpreet answered,
"I want to thank the fans and I want to congratulate Chennaiyin FC for winning the final. But I believe we won the league phase and so we are the champions."
Gurpreet's dig, of course, was aimed at the fact that the ISL, unlike every major and successful league in the world, does not award the title to the team that finishes at the top of the points table after the double leg round robin season. Instead, the top four teams from the points table go on to compete in the playoffs, and the cup goes to whoever wins the final. This has led to a situation that never in ISL's 4 year history has the best team of the season - the table topper - has gone on to actually win the title.
When reporters put this question to CFC coach John Gregory, he expressed his disappointment,
"Playoffs were introduced back in the UK more than 20 years ago. You could finish 6th in the league and still get qualified for the playoffs, even though you finished 20 points behind... the format of playoffs is brilliant. I was disappointed in the words that he used. I think we got the cup, didn't we?"
The former Aston Villa manager's disagreement with Gurpreet's comment is justified. After all, the format of the tournament was known to everyone beforehand, and it doesn't help to criticize it afterwards. Bengaluru FC knew what they were getting into when they moved from the top flight I-League to the closed-door ISL, and pointing out the inherent flaws in the competition of their own choice after it came back to bite them does not make sense. Especially when it takes away from the joy of another team that has worked hard all season and won the final. It reeks of bad sportsmanship.
That being said, the only reason the BFC and national team's first choice goalkeeper's out-of-turn comment actually sticks is because it's 100% correct.
If a footballing comepetition calls itself a league, then it can't ignore the league table when determining who gets to be called the champions. Because the very concept of a league was created to establish the most foolproof way to find out who's the best; consistent performance over many months is rewarded instead of a good day's performance when picking the winner.
That's not to say there is no place for tournaments with knockout matches in football. They are just called Cups or Shields. India already has many such competitions, most prominent of them being the Hero Super Cup (Federation Cup re-branded), Sikkim Gold Cup and the Durand Cup. That's why ISL calling itself a league and then trying to mimic a cup makes even less sense.
ISL uses playoffs after the league stage - to copy the IPL and to make an extra cash grab. The playoffs are popular but in footballing terms, they do nothing but undermine the entire league season.
And that's why Gurpreet's comment gets unbridled abuse from opponent fans online and even catches John Gregory off guard, making him draw up an example of playoffs in England that makes no sense at all.
First of all, England does not use playoffs to determine who wins the league. No respectable country in world football does. The only two notable football leagues that also have playoffs are Australia's A-League and USA's Major League Soccer, both are closed leagues like ISL, both are nowhere near as popular and successful as the open leagues across Asia, Europe and Latin America and both have seen a slump in attendance and popularity in recent years as lack of variety (due to no promotion-relegation) has stagnated the competitions.
In English football, there is a playoff tournament not in the top flight Premier League but in the lower leagues to determine one of the multiple clubs that get promoted to the higher tier.
The second tier Championship, for example, crowns the title to whoever gets most points in the league stage. And the top two clubs in the points table gain automatic promotion to the EPL. For the third promotion spot, clubs ranked 3 to 6 play a knockout tournament. This is the playoffs that Gregory was talking about.
But the elementary thing he gets wrong is that the playoff tournament is seen as separate from the league, not a culmination of it. And it has zero impact on who wins the league.
So, while Gregory's dismissal of Gurpreet's comment was expected and justified, the example he used was completely bogus.
But the fans of Indian football should be glad he brought up England as an example. Even the bigwigs of ISL have constantly cited England as a prime example of how to professionally run a league and make it a successful product. There is even a strategic partnership between ISL and EPL. Is it not ironic, then, that the ISL has designed itself in a way that completely goes against the sporting integrity that EPL represents as a competition?
In England, if anyone even suggests undermining the league by using a playoff to determine the winner, there will be universal backlash. But in India, IMG-Reliance have actively resisted the idea of discontinuing the playoffs and just giving the trophy to the league winners despite many people internally complaining about the unfairness and plain ridiculousness of having a situation where a 4th place team "winning the league" by penalties.
It not only undermines ISL's credibility as a "league" but also reduces the importance of ISL trophy; a league trophy is hardly taken seriously unless it's lifted by the best club. Leagues like EPL, La Liga could have earned millions more if they had playoffs; there's a reason they choose not to do so.
And let's go back to the playoffs that Gregory mentioned - the promotion playoffs in the Championship. That tournament is held to facilitate promotion-relegation, which is another concept that IMG-Reliance and the majority of ISL team owners are dead against. ISL is a closed-door tournament where teams pay to play, and making it an open league promotion-relegation threatens that guaranteed cash for the organizers, so ISL does not have that. The majority of the fans, players, coaches AIFF officials and even AFC and FIFA personnel want promotion-relegation to be implemented across all leagues in India so that increased competition leads to better quality of football. But those who want to monopolize the sport have refused to work towards that. And thus, ISL has further distanced itself from the successful leagues in the world like EPL, which its organizers like to idolize.
When Gurpreet Singh Sandhu made that statement, he probably spoke from his immediate emotions. He was upset at the loss, angry at his own performance and looking for a way to address those feelings. He may even later come to regret having said those words; it was neither the time nor the place. And players are not expected to be so openly critical of the competition they are playing in; especially in ISL where a thousand gag orders are in place to keep participants and stakeholders from speaking out.
But probably even he didn't realise that his words would cause so much controversy, because it put the cat out of the bag on how many - say, majority - of the players feel about the ISL playoffs.
ISL can't have it both ways. It can't call itself a league, or aspire to be the future top division league of the country, if it keeps undermining its own league table. They may neverthelss continue to do so, since they have a monopoly over Indian football, but as long as they do, there will always be a question mark over the legitimacy of the ISL trophy.
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