Will the ISL wake up the ‘sleeping giants’?

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Numero uno Iain Hume was the top goal scorer during the last edition of the ISL. Photo: ISL
Numero uno Iain Hume was the top goal scorer during the last edition of the ISL. Photo: ISL

During his official visit to India in 2007, FIFA president Sepp Blatter witnessed the Kolkata Derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal at Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium. Alongside him, there were around 80,000 people, screaming their lungs out in support of the two fiercest rivals in Indian football. So overwhelmed was Blatter at the end of the match that he described India as the “sleeping giants” of world football, expressing hope that the country would soon wake up from its slumber and become a major force in the world of football.

From then, he has continuously encouraged and supported India. He even gave the country the rights to host the FIFA Under-17 Football World Cup in 2017. Since then, Indian football has remained stagnant.

Two World Cups have passed and qualification for the 2018 edition has already begun. India look highly unlikely to wake up from the slumber anytime soon. It lost to Oman, Iran and even to a lowly-ranked Guam in the qualifiers, and it has no chance, whatsoever, of going beyond the initial stage.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has been striving hard to improve and raise the level of football in India. So, by taking a leaf out of the cash-rich Indian Premier League (IPL) and Major League Soccer in the US it started the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014. It is co-promoted by IMG-Reliance, Star India and supported by AIFF. From business honchos to Bollywood superstars, all have invested in the eight franchises, based out of Chennai, Delhi, Goa, Guwahati, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune. The aim is to make India a global football power and help the country qualify for the FIFA World Cup in 2026.

From the inaugural edition itself, there have been conflicts between I-League, which is the official football league conducted by the AIFF, and the ISL. Some I-League clubs were not in favour of the ISL and they refused to allow their players to take part in it. There have been talks of a possible merger between the two leagues, too. However, it is not likely to happen.

“It will take at least 3-4 years and it is very difficult to merge the ISL and the I-League,” says a reputed sports journalist Novy Kapadia. “For that to happen, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has to change the rules and regulations, and AFC and AIFF are not like ICC and BCCI of cricket to change rules according to their whims and fancies.”

Former Indian football team captain Baichung Bhutia and some traditional football clubs have opposed the merger of the leagues. However, current India captain Sunil Chhetri has a different opinion altogether. Chhetri said that merging the ISL with the I-League would be great for the game in the country as this would make 16-18 teams compete with each other. Meanwhile, AIFF president Praful Patel has said that the merger is difficult and it will take time. In reality, fear is the driving force behind the aversion towards the merger. There is a feeling that league teams would tap into the support base of the traditional football clubs in India. Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) drew fans from both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, FC Goa from Dempo, Churchill Brothers, Salgaocar and other Goan clubs, Northeast United FC from Shillong Lajong and Royal Wahingdoh. A merger between the leagues would bring down the massive support enjoyed by the traditional clubs. No longer will a Mohun Bagan or an East Bengal fan throng to the Salt Lake Stadium in support of ATK if the clubs they share their roots with begin to play in the merged league.

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