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FIFA U-17 WC schedule becomes a headache for ISL organizers

ARGUABLY, HOSTING THE Under-17 World Cup 2017 is the biggest thing that has ever happened to Indian football. Not to mention the huge opportunity to establish India as a favourable destination for clubs and players worldwide, this is also the first time an Indian team will participate in a World Cup football competition of any age group or gender.

It's no surprise that AIFF is treating this tournament with the highest priority. Renovations are in progress in stadiums across the country to be prepared in time to host the event. Just a couple of days ago, a group of FIFA representatives inspected the turf replacement work in progress at the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata and granted it the status of a provisional venue for the high profile event. The U-14 national team is at the thick of things because it's them that will take part in the prestigious tournament. Experienced coaching and fitness staff are being hired for them, and they are being sent out to tour different countries to test themselves against strong teams. Over the last few days itself they have participated in the AFC U-15 Festival of Football 2015, which concluded yesterday.

But this solemn occasion has become a source of headache for one of the major stakeholders in Indian football. Organizers of the Indian Super League are concerned that the U-17 World Cup will eat into their exclusive window in the calendar during which all domestic football comes to a stop so that ISL can gain undivided attention of the fans. 

In 2014, the inaugural ISL was supposed to start in August, but was postponed to September due to a cricket tournament, Champions League T20, was happening at the same time. But since the event was a success, ISL organizers don't want to mess with a formula that works. They insist on having September to November for themselves, and a wider window because frequent matches burned out a number of players last time. 

But unfortunately, the U-17 World Cup has to coordinate itself with leagues around the world, and a September to November window is traditionally allotted to them. So AIFF has no option but to give  them the priority, because, you know, it's the World Cup after all. 

This means the Indian Super League will have to start in November and it will end in January, a scheduling change that has ISL head honchos in great concerns. This development only adds to their growing problems; foremost among them is Indian national team making it to the group stages of the World Cup Qualifiers. This means India must play no less than 4 matches between September and November, and it's something the ISL can't force to postpone or cancel altogether. Furthermore, ISL franchises must actually release players for the national team, an utterly inconsiderate demand that takes no account of the ticket sales at stake. 

Although there is ray of hope. IMG-Relaiance have effectively used their influence over AIFF to carve out a smooth path for ISL so far. The various unsavoury elements in Indian football, the Federation Cup for example, have been effectively eliminated to make sure there is enough room for ISL. Even IFA Shield, a popular tournament with a long history and the only Indian domestic competition to regularly feature clubs from abroad, has been turned into an U-19 affair thanks to Star, a stakeholder in ISL, being the chief sponsors of West Bengal's football governing body. Even the little problems, like AIFF asking ISL franchises to field teams for the U-15 I-League has been successfully suppressed. So there is reason to be hopeful that the U-17 World Cup problem will also be dealt with.

Maybe they will have to concede some ground. For once the ISL will start in November. But that won't really be extra pressure because ISL can still claim their exclusive window and stretch the tournament far into January. This will transfer the pressure onto I-League, because ISL will eat into their window and leave them only four months, February-May, for get themselves over with. The I-League clubs, some of whom will be playing in the Asian leagues, will have to adjust to this grueling schedule. They will also release players for the national team in between, without protest, because it's something they are used to dealing with. But all that will be worth it because ISL will get enough room to run smoothly, and the “Birth of Indian Football” will carry on ever forward.

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