TEAM INDIA CAPTAIN Sunil Chhetri has come out in favour of reforming the Indian Super League to make it more consistent with a professional football league.
In a video released today, Chhetri said he wanted to start a conversation among fans about the format of ISL,
"When you work hard as a team for eighteen weeks, you deserve to be called the champions of India. And the minimum that you deserve is an AFC slot. And I'm not just talking about what's happening right now; the last two years I've played for teams that won the league but lost the trophy. The semi-final is great for fans... but the AFC slot at least should go to the one who works hard for eighteen weeks."
Right now, the ISL uses a double leg round robin system like most other football leagues, but adds home-away sem-finals and a final on top of it to determine the winner, unlike most established football leagues. This format was implemented as part of ISL's efforts to become the "IPL of football" in order to attract eyeballs.
But as a result of this, ISL has ended up with an abysmal record: the best team never wins. The table toppers in terms of points (Chennaiyin FC in 2014, FC Goa in 2015, Mumbai City FC in 2016 and Bengaluru FC in 2017-18) all ended up with nothing as one of the lesser teams won the trophy by winning the playoffs. This not only devalued the importance of the league stage (no incentive to be the best, top four is enough) but also lessened the value of the ISL winners' title itself.
While most stakeholders refuse to raise this issue in public, a discontent has always existed among teams and players, which found a vocal outburst after the ISL 2017-18 final when Bengaluru FC and national team goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu said,
"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."
This kicked off a debate about whether the playoffs truly serve to choose the best from the lot or they are just a cash-grab for the organizers.
Now the stakes are higher since in 2017 the AFC recognized ISL as the 'national knockout cup tournament' of India, a position previously held by Federation Cup. Next season, as the Indian football league system is restructured, the I-League will cease to exist and ISL will become the top division league of India. The winner of ISL 2017-18 and 2018-19 are slated to appear in the AFC Cup playoff stage, and from the 2019-20 season, the winner will get to play in the AFC Champions League qualifiers or the AFC Cup group stage directly; a spot reserved for I-League till the current season.
With the ISL now having a link with the Asian club competitions, it is no longer the isolated private tournament it was from 2014 to 2016. Who gets the trophy and who gets sent up to compete in the continental level has a direct bearing on how Indian football is viewed internationally. Which is why it's crucial to make sure the best team goes forward. Sunil's commentary on the current system addresses that adequately.
The only league under AFC that uses playoffs to determine the winner is the Australian A-League. But there, the league stage winner does not go empty-handed. They get a trophy (Premiership title for league winners while Championship title for playoff winners) and also a direct entry to the AFC Champions League; the highest level of Asian qualification available to the league. This maintains a high level of interest in the league stage games, while not devaluing the playoffs, and also rewards the best teams in the league by letting them represnt the country in Asia. There's no reason why ISL can't adopt a similar format, if not abolish the playoffs entirely like all the major football leagues in the world.
The timing, too, is significant. On Saturday, the AIFF Executive Committee convened in New Delhi and the restructuring of leagues was likely among the issues addressed in the meeting. So there's a good chance a potential change in format is now open for discussion, along with the question of how the two AFC spots will be allocated from 2019-20 season onwards. Which could explain why Sunil Chhetri would issue this statement today; to strike while the iron is hot.
It's easy to see where Sunil is coming from. In the last 2 seasons of ISL, he has played for the team that's been the best and finished at the top of the table. But both times they ended up with nothing. But even more than that, playin at the Asian level is important to him. It's where Bengaluru FC have faced the biggest challenges and delivered the biggest results, becoming the first even Indian club to reach the final. It's widely known that losing the AFC Cup final to Al Quwa Al Jawiya is something he and the Bengaluru FC managment look at as one of the biggest errors in the club's history, one that needs to be corrected. That's why when they made the switch from I-League to the ISL, having a chance to qualify for the AFC Cup was one of the main factors in the negotiations. So of course, he would push for a change where his team's chances of making it to the AFC Cup doesn't get marred by one bad day in the office during the playoffs. But due to the playoff-only reward system in ISL, Bengaluru FC are about to miss out on the AFC Cup for the very first time since 2014.
But this issue goes way beyond Bengaluru FC. Giving all the credit to the playoff winners and ignoring the league winners has hurt other teams too. Mumbai City FC, who are witnessing a sharp decline in popularity, would have benifited greatly if they had a trophy to their name. FC Goa, who dominated the 2015 season but lost the final to Chennaiyin FC, would also have their profile boosted if they had a trophy. Not having playoffs would have given ISL a diverse set of four champions in four seasons, which would have made the tournament way more competitive.
So, while playoffs make some money for the ISL organizers in the short term, they ultimately damage the best teams in the tournament by devaluing their performance in the league stage. There's also the issue of multiple clashes between the top four teams being less attractive to spectators since they are seen as placeholders, with the importance shifting to the playoffs.
While Sunil Chhetri's comments in the video are not about abolishing playoffs, the line of thought he presents, combined with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu's comments, leads to the same argument that calls for ISL to adopt a pure league format once it becomes the top division league of the country. If that's too much too soon for the ISL organizers, the least they can do is to award the AFC spot to the team that tops the points table, so that Indian clubs perform better at the Asian stage and India have a better chance of moving up the AFC MA rankings.
But in the long run, the emphasis must be on turning ISL into a proper league. Having an exciting title race and promotion-relegation battle will keep fans glued throughout the season and eliminate the need to make an extra buck through playoffs. For the fans who love knockouts, the Super Cup will always be there. But in order to maintain ISL's credibility as a league down the line, it's best not keep it as a tournament where a mid-table team can play negative football for draw and win the trophy through penalties.
The opinions of Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu are not outliers. Their words reflect the sentiments of a high number (likely the majority) of the professional players in India. Most players don't speak up because they don't want to be at odds with the league organizers or the Federation. Sunil and Gurpreet can take that risk, because their stature as the two of Indian football's biggest stars, and the two players who most often wear the captain's armband at the national team, gives them a kind of freedom of critical expression that few players enjoy.
While players don't have the power to decide formats, their perspective should be taken into account, since they are the ones who carry the sport at the end of the day.