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SUNBURNT TERRACE - A pinch of hope, but can the new leagues get their flavours right?


THE MOHUN BAGAN TEAM was having their last practice session in Kolkata before flying off to Guwahati for the Federation Cup final. The last day of the season on their own ground, that too before a major cup finale, usually comes with a giddy vibe of festive anticipation. But today, a subtle sense of nervousness seemed to hang around the fabled Mohun Bagan Ground.

The compact arena is fitted with new floodlights. The galleries have been renovated, there's a new air-conditioned press box in place. The idea is to host most of their games in the upcoming Calcutta Football League right here. It rained the night before and the wind was blowing steadily from the Hooghly river. A supporter, standing on top of the newly-revamped members' gallery, put a hand over his plastic cup as a particularly strong gust threatened to spill his tea. He took a quick sip and said, "What's the point of all this if we have to play in the second division?"

Half a day ago, a historic meeting had taken place in Delhi. All major - and less than major - stakeholders in Indian football had converged as FSDL (Football Sports Development Limited, the operative arm of IMG-Reliance) presented its vision of a "re-structuring" of the Indian domestic league system. What was presented was more or less expected: the private tournament Indian Super League gets legitimized as the new top division, I-League and the 2nd Division League (rebranded League One and League Two) become the new second and third tier leagues. A fourth tier league - League Three - awaits its inception comprising of newer and smaller state league clubs by 2020. The Federation Cup gets re-christened too, as the Indian Super Cup, that will see clubs from all 3 divisions participate. A fine mix of league and cup football for a season planned to run from October to May (leagues, running in tandem, end in March, followed by Super Cup). But a stream of conflicting information coming out in various media outlets still had a number of fans confused and enraged over many of the aspects of it. And it wasn't completely unexpected.

It's a merger, but not a merger. ISL plays by the rules to become a part of mainstream domestic football in India but doesn't. I-League and Federation Cup die, but live on in a way. It's like a surrealist's reverie come true. The number of middle grounds this proposal seeks out is astounding... but then, when seen from another perspective, they don't look like middle grounds at all.

A huge number of the initiatives mentioned in the proposal are pure positives. Like ISL, League One will be broadcast on Star Sports, which is a step-up from the hash job I-League received from Ten Sports. League Two will be on regional TV, which you'll have to accept because right now the 2nd Division League is not on TV at all. And of course, there will be live streaming available for every game across all 3 divisions. This kind of accessibility to matches is the first step towards building long-term fan engagement. Also it will make the right kind of use of the regional popularities of clubs like Aizawl FC, Chanmari FC and Kashmir FC (hopefully Royal Wahingdoh and Rangdajied United will also make a comeback). The prize money and revenue share in lower divisions are also expected to go up.

But the devil, in this case, is very typically in the details. Clubs in the ISL will enjoy immunity from relegation, at least for now. A number of people have taken exception to this, including AIFF Vice President Subrata Dutta and club representatives from Kolkata and Goa. 

The Kolkata clubs have been at the centre of a high level of paranoia, because some early reports suggested they will have to play in League One, with Atletico de Kolkata being the city's sole representative in the "top division." This has landed the supporters of the two iconic clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan - who till last month were in the race to win India's highest league title - in a relegation scare. The Mohun Bagan fans especially are seemingly experiencing two parallel realities: on one hand they are in the Federation Cup final and doing well in AFC Cup, and on the other hand they are about to be shoved into the second division.

The club officials of both clubs have added fuel to the fire by making strong statements against the new plan: they want ISL to have promotion-relegation and an abolition of franchise fees. But in truth, the meeting did not discuss which clubs from I-League would "get promoted" to the ISL, and how many. And if you listen to the grapevine, the top 3 I-League clubs, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC, have a good chance of making it into the ISL. And that's the way it should be. I-League is the country's highest league and these three - in terms of supporter base and brand value - are right up there. ISL will benefit immensely from having them on board. It will also give the newly-cannonized ISL a seal of legitimacy. You can't be the "top division" if the best clubs in India aren't playing there.

It's the other I-League clubs who are in real danger here. The likes of Mumbai FC, Sporting Clube de Goa and Shillong Lajong are not getting into ISL any time soon. They don't have that kind of money. So they are, frankly speaking, being forcibly relegated into second division. And for clubs like SCG and MFC, it's a massive blow. These tight-budget clubs have been running on the prestiege of being first division clubs. Avoiding relegation each season is nothing less than a survival struggle for them. And none of them have a seizable enough fanbase - like Shillong Lajong or Aizawl FC - to back them up on a rainy day. Playing a division below will drastically reduce their chances to attract sponsors as well as their budgets. Chairman Peter Vaz, the representative of SCG in the meeting, was especially vocal in his opposition of this proposal. Part of his club's - and Mumbai FC's - success story is being able to stay in the I-League despite short budgets and slim gate revenues. With FC Goa taking over the football scene in Goa, the status of being in the top division is all that clubs like SCG and Salgaocar can take pride in (Dempo SC have become more or less a B-team for FC Goa). A relegation will take away their pride, and practically send them towards a slow death. 

But will it? What if playing in a League One regularly broadcast on Star Sports gets them many more eyeballs? What if the bigger revenue share from AIFF is just what they need to strengthen their infrastructure and facilities? What if the big three of I-League get into ISL and suddenly Mumbai FC and SCG become title contenders in the League One? Mumbai FC have seen a slow growth in their supporter base over the last two seasons; imagine how pumped up they would be if their club actually win a national level trophy. 

But of course, there's one factor that will hurt any club that has to go through this enforced - and frankly undeserved - relegation. Now that all the leagues will run parallelly, the players will no longer be able to play for two teams a year. So the better ones will obviously be picked up by richer and more popular ISL teams. The League One clubs will be left with a crop of second-string talent. This will force many of them to re-think their recruitment policy. Home grown players from academy will take precedence over expensive buys. Some of the clubs will not do well in this new order. They may go from bad to worse and eventually shut down.

But on the flip side, some clubs will flourish under this new scheme of things. The likes of Shillong Lajong, Aizawl FC and Kashmir FC are already playing a high number of academy graduates. And they are turning heads with their success in I-League and Federation Cup. Aizawl FC are on something of a dream run; they have reached the Fed Cup final, one step away from a spot in the AFC Cup. These clubs have large fan bases and the increased revenue will give them the right environment to embark on a slow journey of growth. And in the Indian Super Cup it wouldn't be surprising if they pull off a number of upsets, beating big-time ISL teams and going far in the tournament. With increased coverage their young talents will catch many more eyeballs. Perhaps it will lift a club like Mohammedan Sporting out of the rut, and inspire a Royal Wahingdoh to make a comeback in the national circuit. Who knows... if something like this happened a few years ago, maybe Pune FC and Viva Kerala would still be around.

There's still a lot of details to be ironed out, obviously. To get this right, the new league structure has to be implemented with a deadline on the immunity from relegation that ISL teams currently enjoy. A common ground must be reached with EB, MB & BFC within the next few months. And the number of foreigners that can play has to be brought down to the same number across all divisions: 4, as per the AFC standards. ISL will lose a number of gimmicky things; a larger season will mean that playing aging former world-class stars for exorbitant prices will no longer be feasible. Many ISL teams are already taking steps in this direction, going for younger, more durable players rather than star names, in order to reduce budget as well as build squads that can be more consistent. 

If all these things fall into place, India will finally have a well-structured league system with mechanisms in place to fuel growth. For the first time in years, fans can hope for real, positive change in the convoluted, schizophrenic landscape that is domestic football in India today. 

But for the fans who have seen so many false dawns, the idea of actually hoping comes across as a scary thought. Because so many things can go wrong. What if the telecast of League One turns out to be inconsistent? What if this revenue share that is being promised to new clubs turns out to be a pittance compared to what's needed for actual growth? What if regional TV deals for League Two don't work out? What if they leave promotion-relegation out of ISL for too long? What if the big three of I-League don't get their rightful place in India's new top-tier league? 

The answers to these questions, of course, can't be had now. Yesterday's meeting was merely the beginning of a long process, and they have more than a year to sort things out. The discussions, proposals and counter-proposals will continue in boardrooms. 

For the football purists, it's hard to stomach the idea of the future of Indian football and berths in the top division league being decided in business meetings rather than on the pitch. But this is a reality they will have to live with. Premier League was created out of business interests. Relegation-free franchise-based leagues like MLS, A-League and K-League have improved US, Australian and Korean football. Although it's ideal for ISL to adopt an open, meritocratic nature of European football, this transition phase into the new league system is something that has to be endured. Maybe this dirty business will eventually give rise to a more beautiful game.

But transitions bring uncertainty. With memories of multiple I-League clubs having fatal brushes with "uncertainty" still fresh, the fans can't help but feel a bit paranoid. Which was why even as the Mohun Bagan players walked out of the pitch, mentally preparing themselves for a season-defining trip to Guwahati, the supporters' cheers for their battle-bound heroes carried a distinct flavour of tension. An emotional fan held the hand of a Bengali player and pleaded, "You'll be with us even if we have to play in the second division, won't you? Promise me you won't leave!"

Even the journalists were speaking to each other in a hushed voice. A few lower-level club officials walked by, exchanging muted pleasantries and dark looks. The last time the air was this heavy was in 2012-13, when the Mariners received a 2 year ban from AIFF following a violent, abandoned Kolkata Derby.

A bit later, a group of supporters on their way back from the club ground stopped by a tea-seller near the Esplanade metro station. One of them, a retired clerk, held up the plastic cup and the tea-bag to the rest, "The cup is the ISL, and the tea-bag is I-League."

To a nervous bout of laughter all around, he proceeded to vigorously dip the tea-bag into the milky water the cup contained. The warm liquid changed colour. With a wry smile, the hardened Mohun Bagan fan of four decades raised the cup to his lips, saying, "Let's see if it tastes of Mohun Bagan."

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