SHOULD THE I-League and ISL be merged?
Even before the first edition of the IMG-Reliance and Star owned parallel tournament kicked off last year, this question was doing the rounds among fans. Many questioned the idea of projecting an isolated, short-term tournament as the prime event of the season at the risk of sidelining I-League and its clubs. Others argued against it, saying it made no sense tampering with a formula that was succeeding, lest it fails.
While AIFF as a whole has been on the fence on the issue about merging the leagues, expressing their support for both I-League and ISL, many in the Indian football establishment have spoken up about the issue from time to time. Last year there was AIFF General Secretary, Kushal Das, and ISL franchise FC Goa manager, Zico, who spoke in favour of an eventual merger, while IMG-Reliance officials were almost unanimously in favour of keeping things the way they were. A few weeks ago former Indian captain Baichung Bhutia opined against a merger, saying it would cause ISL to "lose its charm." The latest to weigh in on this debate is Indian national team head coach, Stephen Constantine.
Earlier on Friday, Stephen spoke to reporters, expressing his concern about India lacking a widespread, deep-rooted football culture,
"Ten years down the line after I left the India coach's job in 2005, I can see the country has moved ahead in some areas. But at the same time, in some other areas, there has been little improvement... Not enough focus on grassroot development and scouting of talent at a young age are unfortunately two such areas. Unfortunately, it is about the lack of football culture in this country. Eight countries have so far won the FIFA World Cup and you can see their football culture."
He referred to how Europe and Latin America have football clubs and academies as central points in towns and communities which helps them identify talent at a very young age and provide them with proper coaching and guidance at the earliest so they can reach their full potential as players at the senior level.
"In these countries, the youngsters start learning their basics at the age of four or five. In India, the players do not learn their basics at a young age and naturally they struggled in their basics when they grow up. During our World Cup qualifying away match against Guam, I asked one of their players when did he start playing football under a qualified coach and he said at the age of four. And, when I asked the same question to C K Vineeth (national team player), he said he started with a coach at 13. There lies the difference."
In a subsequent Twitter conversation, he was asked by this reporter whether focusing on a tournament that lasts only two months is a hindrance to developing a football culture. To put the question in context, only days ago Zico commented that since ISL franchises dissolved after a short period of time it was difficult for them to make sustained, wide-ranging efforts at grassroot development.
Constantine's reply to the question was this:
It was perhaps the first time that Stephen Constantine had come out explicitly in support of merging I-League and ISL. Taking into account how this issue has divided the football administrators of this country, it is commendable that Constantine has chosen to make his stance clear. Whether or not a merger of the leagues will actually take place is unclear at this point, but Constantine's voice has added to a debate that has been growing over the past few months, and has the potential to become one of the central issues in Indian football in near future.