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SUNBURNT TERRACE: Myriads of agendas from various stakeholders that muddy the ISL, I-League merger


IN MAY, the proposal to merge the leagues (or "re-structure" them) was presented by IMG-Reliance and AIFF to the Indian football stakeholders in Delhi. Feedback on it was invited from the clubs, and they duly started sending their inputs to AIFF. The Indian FA allegedly neglected to properly respond to and address them.

Frustrated with the lack of attention from AIFF on the matter of the clubs' concerns, Mumbai FC's deputy vice president Atul Badgamia wrote a letter to AFC and FIFA complaining about the situation. A sudden imposition of a hefty franchise fee and the prospect of a forced relegation to second tier for clubs that earned their place in the top division -- how was this fair, they asked. That was mid-June.

About two weeks later, two Goan clubs Salgaocar FC and Sporting Clube de Goa announced that they were pulling out of I-League over the same concerns that Mumbai FC expressed. Dempo SC, the third top division club from Goa, signalled moral support but adopted a 'wait and watch' strategy over whether to join in on the walkout that their fellow Goan clubs initiated (club owner Srinivas Dempo was caught up in the FC Goa controversy at this point). The day was June 24th. The AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das visited Goa to see if the clubs can be persuaded to change their minds. But the Indian FA wasn't ready to consider the clubs' demands.

In July, Mumbai FC received a reply from FIFA, who said they were going to be more active in the matter from now on. The timing was significant because in August, AIFF representatives were going to meet AFC officials where the matter of the merger was going to be discussed for the first time at an official level between the national and continental football bodies. A few days before the meeting was going to take place in Kuala Lumpur, Sporting Clube de Goa also wrote a letter to AFC and FIFA, echoing the sentiments Mumbai FC expressed in their letter earlier.

This was the context -- and the baggage -- with which AIFF and AFC first sat down to address the merger. And the complications prevalent in this situation was perhaps of an uprecedented proportion. The leagues were about to be unified, but the clubs appeared as divided as they could be. And the decision that came out of this meet -- to form a "joint task force" to oversee the whole thing -- is only the first step of many required to untangle this situation.

The ISL franchises want to impose the existing structure of the private tournament on the new national league. One-team-per-city and no relegation. But they are not a united force either. The first point is being pushed only by the likes of Atletico de Kolkata, Mumbai City, and NorthEast United who are seeking monopoly over certain territories.

ATK knows they will lose most of their fans if they are seen as direct rivals of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Mumbai City don't want to share the city with Mumbai FC. NEUFC for some reason want 8 Indian states to be solely represented by them in the top tier. Other ISL teams are not particularly bothered with this point. FC Goa and Kerala Blasters are comfortable in their shoes with dedicated fanbases already prepared and others haven't had to face the prospect of having local rivals vying for the same territory.

It's understandable that the I-League clubs should be outraged by this. The open system that they have come out of has seen them fight their way up divisional ladders and battle local rivals to claim their own fans. And many of them were actually robbed by ISL franchises who came into their cities and took their fans; especially the clubs from Goa, Kolkata and the North-East. They have fulfilled all the club licensing criteria and battled the prospect of relegation to survive. And now many of them are being told that they will get relegated nonetheless. So of course a pushback was always going to happen.

But even the I-League clubs are not exactly unified. Because three of the biggest clubs -- East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC -- are going to make it into ISL in the merger deal. Although this part of the proposition remained hush-hush (barely) for a while, comments from ISL supremo Nita Ambani left little doubt over what was cooking. So the most powerful clubs from the league are no longer criticising IMG-Reliance and AIFF over the merger. And it's up to the smaller clubs to fight it out on their own.

They wouldn't stand much of a chance (well, the PIL filed earlier may have a break-through, but legal matters take too long and we only have a few months to settle this) had AFC and FIFA not taken interest in the situation. But the international bodies have their own set of interests to protect here. Because this entity named ISL doesn't just violate a bunch of FIFA rules and norms; its existence is literally based on bending rules and employing double standards.

But it does the job that FIFA badly want to see done: investing in Indian football and popularising it across the country. Never mind hypothetical scenarios like "what if IMG-Reliance actually tried to promote the I-League and added more corporate clubs..." ISL delivers the goods. That's a fact. So FIFA was happy to give it some time to get its affairs in order before getting involved.

But the world governing body has its own stakes in the situation. The world is watching how a private corporation can waltz into a promising market like India, undermine its national league and all its clubs and pretty much take over the scene with its own private, monopolistic creation. There are many companies who are salivating right now to replicate this in other parts of the world.

We've seen some of that in India itself with Premier Futsal; a tournament that bypassed AIFF and FIFA altogether. If more and more entities follwed IMG-R's lead, FIFA's stronghold over world football will be threatened. So ISL had to be made to toe the line and become the official league of India. And with that status comes a requirement to adhere to a large number of rules that ISL and its franchises are yet to come around to. Not to mention that fact that if right under their watch top division clubs in India are forced to get relegated because the system is changed to adopt a money-first model, it will be a embarrassment and a slap in the face for FIFA.

It actually benefits every league to have a promotion-relegation system. It brings variety, increases competition, and turns even bottom-table games into exciting survival contests that pump up the fans and draw more eyeballs. So it's actually not in the interest of ISL to not have relegation; IMG-Reliance are pushing for that only because the franchises want them to honour the 10-year contracts that was signed between them.

That's where the "one-team-per-city" shenanigan comes from. And that's why Kushal Das says ISL will have promotion-relegation in about 6-7 years; after those contracts expire. It should make the bigwigs at MLS and A-League, feeling lonely because every other league is going the pro-rel way and fans are liking it, temporarily very happy.

But the good news is that ISL is no stranger to bending rules. They are willing to bend one of their own big rules of not allowing more than one team per city to let East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in. So maybe they will become more flexible on the relegation part as negotiations progress. But the fight is going to be hard on that front; because the absence of relegation is crucial to hold up their biggest interest in the league: the franchise fees.

The pay-and-play model has been a trump card for IMG-Reliance for a while now. It brings a faux-Darwinian element in the merger; since most I-League clubs can't bear its burden, they bow out of the whole situation. Royal Wahingdoh pulled out because of it. Pune FC did so as well, and now Pune City get to take over their academy and youth setup (Also, it's the primary reason DSK Shivajians want to play in League One for now, which leaves the whole city of Pune for FC Pune City). Salgaocar and Sporting Clube de Goa also pulled out because they could not bear the expense and Dempo may join them too, leaving the whole state to FC Goa. And Mumbai FC, for all their activism, have not ruled out an eventual merger with Mumbai City. It's the great factor that ensures IMG-Reliance have their coffers full from the get go and eliminates unwanted clubs; survival of the richest through and through. 

That's why, when in a recent 'Working Committee' meeting, AIFF vice president and Shillong Lajong head Larsing Sawyan made a simple suggestion it got IMG-Reliance representatives immediately on the defensive. The proposal he made was simple: since ISL is growing from 8 to 12 teams in 2017-18, why not open the league up and allow all I-League clubs to come in to make it 14? Since the big three are getting into ISL, Goan clubs are pulling out and DSK want to play in League One, it only leaves Lajong and Mumbai FC as the sole I-League clubs that are going to be forcefully relegated. So why not just avoid the pain and let them play? But the idea of an "open league" is a threatening one for IMG-R and they immediately cited logistics and operating costs to shut that proposal down. One wonders how much of a cost bump it would be to have 14 clubs instead of 12, especially when it promises exciting local rivalries in Mumbai and the North-East.

And to be frank it's not just the revenue model of IMG-Reliance that's being protected by stopping the new top division from being an open league. The last season of I-League, to be held in 2016-17, is also playing an inadvertent role here.

Because so many clubs have pulled out, AIFF are being forced to consider fill-in clubs to make sure the league has a full season and meets the AFC criteria (for the I-League winners to be able to play in ACL qualifiers they have to play 18 domestic games at least). So there are clubs like Aizawl FC, Minerva AFC who are being considered for spot giveaways. And Ozone FC are gearing up to be a corporate entry. We may also have FC Bardez from Goa coming into the picture. It looks like a rich, diverse season we have in our hands for the last dance of I-League, which is great. But the discourse about the open league at this time is making the AIFF and IMG-Reliance nervous. 

AIFF will already have to bypass a dozen rules so that these clubs can have a one-off stint in the top division. But if they get wind that ISL may consider taking in all clubs from I-League, they might ask for more. What if they ask for a place in the ISL too, since technically they will be top division clubs playing in the I-League? That complicates the situation further than anything else. IMG-Reliance will have a real logistics cost crisis in their hands, and NorthEast United will have a panic attack about losing their entire Mizo fanbase. So even a whisper of an "open league" is being whipped down by the bigwigs.

And this is the scenario where AFC (and FIFA) are stepping into the situation, possibly with the intention to make the new top division as open as possible and stop IMG-Reliance from forcefully relegating legitimate top division clubs. If you have had the patience of reading this far into the article (and I thank you for taking the time), I don't have to tell you how utterly complicated this whole thing is, and the long road to a middle ground they are potentially facing.

Everyone is fighting for their own interests. I-League clubs are fighting for their survival, ISL franchises are fighting to preserve their monopoly, IMG-Reliance are fighting to keep their revenue model, AFC and FIFA will probably fight to enforce their global rules, and AIFF is fighting to stay relevant.

Which begs this question: who is fighting for Indian football? Who is going to have the bigger heart and sacrifice some of their short-term interests in order to make a diverse, real league that promises equal opportunity for every club with the fire in their guts to make it big; one that can keep fans captivated for 8 months a year, and pay its dues in terms of developing the sport across the country? 

Somebody will have to step up and do it. For the sake of fans and the future Indian football. Otherwise it will be impossible to arrive at a consensus. And delaying the consensus -- and the merger -- is exactly what some people want. And if that happens, if after the U-17 World Cup we don't see a unified league and instead are presented with the same old ISL and I-League crammed together in an already shortened season, it be a lost opportunity of historic proportions, and the worst setback for Indian football in a long time.

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