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IPL-style Football League in India - A Grave Mistake!

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Come this January, Indian football will have its own IPL-style league. For a nation where the beautiful game has failed to gain any serious popularity in its 66 years since independence, this proposed event is being hailed as some sort of messiah for the game by a few quarters.

The tournament is the brainchild of IMG-Reliance, the marketing partners of India's football governing body, All India Football Federation (AIFF). The whispers of a football tournament on the lines of the Indian Premier League (IPL), India's annual cricketing extravaganza, were first heard as long back as more than two years back, when IMG-R had signed a 15-year contract with AIFF in December, 2010, thus acquiring the marketing rights for tournaments organized by the AIFF. The deal was worth Rs. 700 crores, which were to be paid to the AIFF in installments over the 15-year period. Less than three years following the deal, IMG-Reliance's influence in Indian football administration has grown into such proportions that the role of AIFF itself is extremely questionable nowadays. Around three months ago, the AIFF conveyed through its emergency meeting, IMG-R's wishes to commence its new event from 2014, with the first edition of the IPL-style league set to start from January, next year. Many Indian football administrators, and players involved with this new league, have offered explanations about how this tournament would help in taking Indian football to a higher pedestal. With the possibility of watching world-renowned football stars in their homeland, a large number of football fans in India, a majority of whom are ignorant about the domestic football scenario, have expressed their excitement at this new tournament too. However, taking a deeper look at this event, things do not appear too well for Indian football.

As has been reported by various sections of the media, IMG-Reliance plans to have eight franchises in its league, each side with 22 players in its squad, 10 of which will be foreign players. The 10 foreign players will include a 'marquee' signing, who will help in pulling crowds to the games. The entire tournament will be held in a two-month span, with eight franchises from different cities fighting it out for the title, and will follow the format of the IPL. In recent weeks, Indian football fans have been told about IMG-R's intentions to bring in popular international players to play in the league, with even the recently-retired David Beckham being linked to the event. On the other hand, the organizers have succeeded in signing quite a few Indian stars, both retired and playing, including the legendary Baichung Bhutia. The AIFF has stressed in recent weeks that this event would complement India's premier football league, the I-League, and would help in the latter's growth in the coming years. While the governing body has put its weight behind the tournament, I-League clubs and a large section of the domestic football followers have been left unimpressed by the new developments, with the clubs vowing not to release players for the event.

Since the National Football League was revamped into the supposedly more commercial-friendly I-League in 2007, things have not really moved ahead for India football. The top flight tournament has, over the years, suffered from a lack of interest, absence of corporate involvement, low quality of football, and a collective display of unprofessionalism from both the clubs and the AIFF. The stagnancy of the I-League, however, can largely be attributed to the legal existence of the league. It is extremely surprising to note that the I-League doesn't exist as a separate legal entity as of today. The AIFF runs the annual league, and clubs have little say in it. I-League clubs spend crores of money every year, strengthening their team, trying to earn a respectable position in the league. Sadly for these clubs, they get little money in return for their investments, which are not even enough to cover their costs. Clubs have been very vocal in recent years about this anomaly in the Indian structure, but the AIFF or IMG-R seem little interested in listening to their demands. What is even more surprising is IMG-R's apparent readiness to implement a proper revenue sharing system in its new league, despite not willing to do the same in the I-League!

Coming back to IMG-R's new tournament, the organizers' rationale behind this fresh endeavor is that the event will attract serious attention from Indians, and will boost the popularity of the domestic game. Any sensible football fan will understand that this is a flawed theory. If because of the presence of retired footballing superstars, IMG-R generates significant amount of interest from the public in its new league, this will in no way help Indian football. The organizers have failed to explain how the I-League will benefit from this new interest. You may get people to watch your tournament by bringing in a David Beckham or a Raul Gonzalez, but will the Indian public, largely ignorant of the domestic football scene, come back to watch the I-League, which wouldn't include any world-renowned football star? I highly doubt. In fact, if anything, this tournament will only take Indians further away from the domestic game. When it comes to the business side of the tournament, meanwhile, the IMG-R League has already attracted the interest of many Indian millionaires, with even Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan expressing an interest in acquiring one of the league's franchises. This sudden corporate interest in the IMG-R League, however, doesn't bode well for the I-League. On one hand, IMG-R refuses to share I-League revenues with any of the participating clubs, thus discouraging investments from top corporate bodies; but on the other hand, it seduces the corporate world with its new lucrative commercial venture, which will generate revenues for the participating franchises too. This hypocrisy with respect to revenue-sharing will eventually dissuade corporate bodies from heavily investing in the I-League. It would be much more profitable in putting one's money in the IMG-R League, as it would at least assure some return.

When it comes to the quality of the tournament, it is quite obvious what to expect from a league that wouldn't have most of the country's best players playing in it. Apart from a few top Indian players, most of the players signed up by IMG-R from within the country, are either players well past their prime, or those who have been struggling to find any top club to sign for. The other players in the league will be retired foreign footballers, and youth footballers to be signed by the franchises from their local cities. For the youngsters, there's little chance of them professionally benefiting from playing in this tournament. The benefits they receive from signing up for IMG-R's league will only be limited to their bank accounts. Playing with a bunch of retired footballing superstars cannot help a budding player to raise his level of football. It is delusional to think so. Unfortunately for Indian football administrators, things as trivial as the quality of football, youth footballers, or the I-League clubs' issues with the new league, do not matter.

The AIFF President, Praful Patel, former Civil Aviation Minister of India, and the man widely held responsible for bringing government air carrier, Air India, down to its knees during his tenure, has staunchly backed IMG-R's new tournament. Mr. Patel believes the new tournament is only a short-term solution, and will help in boosting the popularity of the I-league. What he has conveniently chosen to ignore is the fact that the I-League and the IMG-R League will be entirely two different sets of products to the Indian public. The IMG-R League will pull Indians because of the touch of glamour it will have, with the involvement of Indian celebrities and former superstar footballers. The I-League will showcase much higher standards of football, but the Indian public wouldn't bother to watch it if it isn't marketed in the same way as the new tournament will be; and as things stand, IMG-Reliance and the AIFF look reluctant to expend their energies on the I-League. Moreover, Mr. Patel's view that IMG-R's tournament is a short-term solution is extremely delusional. If the new tournament does good business, IMG-Reliance, who look little interested in the overall good of Indian football, wouldn't have a problem expanding it. A possible expansion of the new tournament would have severe repercussions on the I-League, and may eventually spell its doom.

The scariest thing about IMG-R's new tournament, perhaps, is the way in which the marketing partners and the AIFF have moved ahead with their plans. It is not criminal to think of a new tournament that wouldn't be welcomed by the clubs with open arms, but taking decisions for Indian football without involving its real stakeholders, the clubs, is nothing but sheer evil. India has often been referred to as the 'sleeping giant' by the foreign media, considering the country's potential in football. With the fresh developments in the game in this part of the world, it is quite easy to assume that this 'giant' will continue its slumber for quite a long time.