I-League clubs want to resist but lack unity as Top 3 eye ISL

THE I-LEAGUE CLUBS from Kolkata and Goa are trying to form a coalition to fight against the proposed "re-structuring" of the Indian domestic football league system, with a limited degree of success so far.

On Tuesday, Football Sports Development Limited (IMG-Reliance) presented their vision of a new three-tier league system in Indian football. At the top of their proposed pyramid - which they plan to bring into effect in 2017, sits the hitherto private tournament Indian Super League. I-League gets re-branded as League One, the second division. There is no provision of promotion-relegation in place at the ISL, meaning under-performing top division clubs will not get relegated and second-tier winners will have no direct avenue to enter the top league. It is this blanket-ban on open meritocracy that has irked the I-League clubs.

Officials of Salgaocar FC and Sporting Clube de Goa are in constant touch with each other, formulating a strategy to fight this co-opting of the current league system by IMG-Reliance, with a passive AIFF nodding their agreement. Officials of the Kolkata clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, have also spoken out against rules like franchise fees and lack of promotion and relegation. Some have even threatened to take AIFF to court over these arbitrary and anti-competitive rules.

But a coalition of all I-League clubs may not come to happen so easily. Because rumours suggest the big three of I-League - East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC - are secretly in talks to get included in the ISL from 2017 onwards.

Bengaluru FC have already made their intentions public, saying they wanted to be a part of ISL if given a chance. After the presentation, they didn't say much against the proposals. And although EB & MB officials have been talking big, a slightly better offer made by IMG-Reliance could see them change tune and sign up for ISL. In fact, the overwhelming majority of their fans would prefer to be in the ISL in order to retain their top tier status. Even IMG-Reliance would like them on board owing to their large and loyal fan-bases.

The Goa clubs, on the other hand, have neither the money nor the popularity. Salgaocar and SC Goa had a less-than-memorable 2015-16 season where their mid-budget teams failed to challenge for the I-League title and spent most of the time trying to avoid a threat of relegation. Their supporter bases are no match to that of the ISL franchise FC Goa. ISL is unlikely to want them on board. So they are looking at an inevitable drop to League One (second tier).

But without the support of the Kolkata clubs and Bengaluru FC it's doubtful that their resistance to the new ISL will have much impact, unless they manage to get a legal injunction on the implementation of the system. But chances of that getting through are slim as well.

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