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SUNBURNT TERRACE -- Indian coaches and ISL's policy of incremental change

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IN 2014 WHEN THE INDIAN SUPER LEAGUE was given an "exclusive" window (September to December) by All India Football Federation so it could get undivided attention from the Indian football fans, it caused a drastic side-effect that was felt, more than most, by players.

Giving ISL an "exclusive window" effectively meant banning every other club in the country from participating in a major competition during that period. The I-League was cut down from 14 clubs in 2013-14 to just 9 clubs in 2014-15, so the season could fit between January to April. As a result, almost every I-League club chose to sign players only for that 5-6 month period during which they were active, instead of giving out full-season contracts. This, coupled with the sudden death of a number of top division clubs, caused a huge employment crisis among professional footballers.

The ISL was employing just over 110 Indian players out of the nearly 300 Indian professional players who played in I-League 2013-14. The overwhelming majority of the rest, during the ISL season, were left without a club. And they knew, since almost all ISL players would also play in the I-League, they would have a hard time finding a club in the top division league; since the reduction in clubs meant only about 200 Indian players would be signed.

This led to players offering themselves to clubs at significantly lower wages, and some even offered to play for free in local leagues like CFL and GPL. A huge number of promising players who in a normal situation would be picked by top flight clubs, ended up playing in 2nd Division; driving their careers downhill. The average salary of Indian players plummeted.

Cut to 2017-18 when ISL became a full season tournament for the first time, recognized by AFC as a knockout cup, running parrallel to I-League. They were adding two new teams - Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC. And the number of foreign players per team had come down from over 10 in 2014 to just 8. All positive things; without a doubt. But the ISL marketing machinery was going a step further to promote itself: in statements at the player draft, they took credit for increasing the number of Indian players from 110 to about 180.

Never mind that a lot of players had lost livelihood due to FSDL's initial move to ban independent clubs from playing full season. Never mind that the number of Indian players in ISL continues to be significantly less than the number of players who got to play before they came along. The prevailing media narrative immediately offered uncritical praise to ISL for slightly increasing the number of Indian players.

That, in a nutshell, is how FSDL (IMG-Reliance) shapes the narrative around ISL: through incremental improvements that cover up for a much larger damage.

Let's come to the recent example of a similar move that has earned ISL praise for "breaking new ground": Indian coaches are finally allowed to become head coaches in ISL franchises. They have to have the AFC or equivalent Pro license, and they must serve as an assistant coach in ISL for two years before they are deemed eligible to be a head coach; but ultimately, it's a positive step and a great news for all Indian coaches; current and aspiring.

But the manufactured celebratory vibe to the way this news is being propagated begs a question - why weren't Indians allowed to be head coaches of ISL franchises in the first place? For what logic? What made the rulemakers of ISL think that an Indian coach, purely on basis of nationality, is inferior to a foreign coach? 

Was it because of qualification? It's true that not many Indian coaches have completed the Pro license. In fact, even today, the number is about 14. Back in 2014, it was zero. So, would it justify ISL's ban on Indian head coaches?

Actually, no. Because in 2014, ISL did not require any qualification for a coach at all, other than him being a "big name." David James and Marco Materazzi, who were player cum head coach at Kerala Blasters and Chennaiyin FC, had no qualification and next to no coaching experience.

Even in 2015, when Nicolas Anelka became head coach of Mumbai City FC, there was no coaching license needed. That particular appointment became a butt of jokes because it was a poorly kept secret that assistant coach Oscar Bruzon was doing the bulk of the work at MCFC. Anelka got involved in ego clashes with both Bruzon and a number of players, leading to some of them quitting the team midway through ISL. As a result, a promising Mumbai City team greatly underperformed.

Then, in 2016, ISL made AFC B license mandatory for a head coach. Which was an admission by ISL that more than a hundred Indian coaches, who had AFC B or higher (A or Pro) licenses, and a wealth of experience of working in Indian football from academies to top division clubs, were eligible to be head coaches in ISL.

Yet, when it came to actually appointing head coaches, ISL still had a large "No Indians Allowed" sign hanging from its door. 

Qualified Indian coaches were still getting employment, though. I-League still was the top division league of the country and most of the clubs had Indian head coaches. That same season, Khalid Jamil made history with Aizawl FC, leading a small budget club to become the Champions of India, beating full strength major clubs like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC. Aizawl FC's success made international headlines and Khalid Jamil became the most famous coach in India; more famous than any ISL head coach. In fact, one ISL franchise became eager to appoint him as their head coach. But despite their efforts, they were unable to make ISL change their "No Indians" policy. Khalid Jamil, with his years of experience and a hard-earned Pro license, went on to join East Bengal.

It was a dark time for Indian coaches. A huge number of them, who had B or A licnses, decided not to pursue further qualification. Because it cost lakhs of rupees to get an A or Pro license, and what good was it if ISL, which was going to become the top division league in the near future, did not allow Indians to be head coaches.

A number of franchises, who were not happy with the results they were getting from foreign coaches who came in with little experience and understanding of Indian football, tried to circumvent the ban on Indian coaches by appointing them as "Technical Directors" or assistant coaches with more power than usual. But still, the glass ceiling remained in place. Until now.

The ban was going to be lifted sooner or later. It had become an embarrassment for the ISL. Some coaches and officials had started comparing it to the 'Dogs and Indians Not Allowed' rules that certain resturants used to have before independence. And with the ISL set to become the top flight league of India from 2019-20, it could not have a policy of such open discrimination against Indians any longer.

This changing of rules, which is being touted as "breaking new ground", is actually FSDL correcting a ridiculous and hurtful policy that they never really needed to have in the first place.

So while it's more or less easily understandable why they are changing the rule, it's still not clear why they came up with that rule. It's unlikely that there will be any direct and honest explanation from FSDL about that. But when put in context with other practices that FSDL put in place around ISL, one can get an idea of the underlying reasons.

Did IMG-Reliance think being Indian makes a coach somehow less competent and underqualified? Not really. Politically and socially, FSDL is a progressive organization. Anyone who has observed them closely knows they don't deal in racial or gender-based discrimination. In that aspect, they are a great fit for Indian football; which has one the most diverse ecosystems in the country. (Although, how ISL is affecting that diversity will require a whole different edition of this column to discuss)

The motivation behind banning Indian coaches must have come from elsewhere. It can't be seen as an isolated decision. As with everything FSDL does, this too likely was a small component of a larger, overarching plan of action. More likely than not, it's the same plan of action that made them greatly reduce the number of Indian players in ISL first, then slowly increase it.

And why did ISL do that with Indian players? The answer to this question is not very hard to find. From day one, IMG-Reliance projected ISL as something that's bigger and better than what Indian football had before, namely I-League.

In 2014 IMG-Reliance banned any banner that showed the logo of an I-League club from stadiums. The commentators were discouraged from mentioning I-League or its clubs. The ISL marketing department pushed it as the "birth of Indian football", and AIFF officials took it upon themselves to repeat the talking point, "I-League is a failure. That's why we need ISL."

To justify its existence, ISL had to project itself as better than I-League. It looked better on TV. It had wall-to-wall marketing. Flashy celebrities in the stands. Former world class players. They spent a lot of money to lure in a higher number of fans. Ensured no marketing and bad quality or no coverage at all for I-League matches, to make sure ISL got higher TRP so the sponsors would flock to them and leave I-League clubs with diminishing resources.

Having less Indian players and no Indian head coaches was also a part of projecting that image of superiority. Fans, sponsors, players, coaches... everyone had to believe that playing in ISL meant a higher achievement. The 2017-18 player draft was also meant to do the same (other than forcing Bengaluru FC to break their team's strong core of Indian players)... to put I-League down, drain them of more resources and value in the eyes of potential sponsors, laying more seeds of in-built justification that they will use when they kill I-League and even cause more of its clubs to shut down.

Never mind this illusion of superiority has been busted already; enough I-League clubs have bested ISL franchises in the Super Cup, establishing that there's hardly any difference in the quality of football in I-League and ISL, despite ISL teams being significantly richer than I-League clubs. But when it comes to brand-building, manufactured perception matters way more than ground reality. That's why, even though Indians can now be head coaches in ISL teams, they have to jump through extra hoops that coaches of other nationalities don't have to: serve as an assistant coach in an ISL for two years etc.

But is it just killing I-League that prompted ISL to do all this? One can rightly point out that though I-League has been steadily and organically growing in popularity for the last 7 years, its lack of marketing budget has ensured that it will not be able to gather as many eyeballs as ISL no matter what. So FSDL didn't need to put Indian coaches and players through extra hoops just to hurt I-League. It would be an overkill.

Which is true - and makes one wonder what else might have caused FSDL to take those steps.

Building a superior brand image for ISL is critical to the success of FSDL's business plan. Literally everything they have done since day one has been aimed at maximizing the brand value of ISL. From signing former EPL stars to unabashedly trying to take credit for India's performance at the Asian Cup 2019... the idea is to portray ISL as both superior to and benefactor of Indian football. And it's understandable why they would do that: FSDL's contract with AIFF runs out in 2027; and since they own the ISL brand, the greater its value, the more leverage they have to negotiate a contract extension or cash out with a handsome profit by selling the brand.

But apart from the straightforward attempts to boost the ISL brand, there are other practices within the ISL ecosystem that are far pleasant in nature.

For example, till 2018-19, ISL franchises had to ask for permission to sign most of their foreign players. They had to let a central ISL committee (the members of which are not publicly known) know which players they wanted to sign and the committee either accepted it or rejected it. In 2018-19, 6 of the 8 foreigners had to be pre-approved. From 2019-20, 3 of the 6 foreigners will require committee approval.

All the coaches, head coach and assistant, continue to require committee approval.

This practice goes against common sense, as infringes on the freedom of the franchises (who are supposed to be professional clubs) to conduct their internal affairs. It led to disagreements between teams and ISL organizers, too. Bengaluru FC had to sign a prominent European player with a long successful spell at the club on one of the two "free signing" slots they had because he was allegedly rejected by the committee. ATK, Mumbai City had their head coaches of choice rejected by the committee. Some others like NEUFC have had to fight hard to have their choices accepted. And there are likely to be other similar incidents.

All this raises the question - what good does it do for ISL to have a committee with unlimited power and zero accountability get in the clubs' way of doing basic business like signing players and coaches? Is it not detrimental to the image of professionalism that ISL has built up if a handful of individuals are endowed with power that can be greatly manipulative of a team's performance?

The rationale that comes from people within FSDL is that ISL had to do all this as "quality control." They knew the teams were losing money and it was tempting for them to sign cheap African players and get better results instead of overpaying for former European stars who failed to do drive up ticket sales or produce many good performances on the field. But forcing them to sign players of the kind that FSDL wanted was necessary to differentiate ISL from I-League, and give it a shinier image to potential sponsors.

The goal, again, was to boost the ISL's brand value, but this time directly at the cost of its franchises who, as competitive teams, are expected to build the best possible team for the least possible budget, and sign players who win them matches instead of servicing the shiny image of the tournament at the cost of their own performance.

But why would ISL want its own franchises to compromise on their aim to optimize performance? Why would they make such high impositions on their partners who are already paying them hefty franchise fees averaging 15 crore and incurring heavy losses?

Could it be because ISL's priority lies in creating a bunch of franchises who are under FSDL's control rather than fully functional independent clubs?

Could it also be the reason why FSDL and AIFF have recently taken a scorched earth approach to crush the alternate roadmap for Indian football proposed by I-League clubs; because if their franchises got the idea that they could be successful on their own without FSDL watching over every aspect of their operation (Ranging from player singings, coach appointments, matchday venue management, catering, event management to match photography), it could hurt the superior and indispensable image they have built up for the ISL brand?

It's crucial for ISL to eliminate its alternatives, be it I-League or merged league, be it a real existing competition or a proposed one. And every little act of control FSDL excercises on the teams, the players and the coaches contributes to building up that image of ISL as an overarching, ultimate entity that the whole of Indian football depends on.

That's what will maximize the ISL's brand value, and make it indispensable for AIFF when it comes the time to negotiate a new contract.

So, perhaps the arbitrary 5 year ban Indian coaches had to face from being head coaches in a tournament in their own country, and the new rule that continues to treat them as second class by demanding extra "qualifications" like serving as an assistant coach in ISL (despite them already having the highest qualification possible), are mere pawns in a greater game that FSDL is playing with ISL as the center-piece. 

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