In December 2010, IMG-Reliance signed a historic Rs. 700 crore deal with the All India Football Federation. It was hailed as a new beginning for the game in India. AIFF, which was in a financial abyss at that point of time, suddenly had the money flowing in from its new marketing partners. The Indian wing of the management giant was expected to help the I-League, the Indian top-flight, finally find its feet, and make it an economically viable product. There were few I-League clubs making any sort of profits in the game, and IMG-R's entry was expected to change things for the better for these clubs soon. A year earlier, clubs like Pune FC and Shillong Lajong had made their marks in the I-League, which had long been a Goa and Kolkata-centric event. With newer clubs from other regions emerging and challenging the hegemony of the clubs from Goa and Kolkata, the I-League was starting to take some positive strides, and its potential as a product was quite clearly visible to the Indian football fraternity.
Fast forward 3 years and 8 months, IMG-Reliance has started setting the stage for a new product of its own, the Indian Super League. The new two-month long tournament is being initiated to 'promote' Indian football and bring more fans into the domestic game. The media coverage received by the ISL has been very encouraging for the organizers too. Popular footballing stars of the yesteryears have been brought in to try and attract the European football-following urban Indian youth into the games, while most of the ISL franchises have themselves linked up with European clubs to add that extra bit of glamour to their brands. In the meantime, however, the future of the I-League, and the entire Indian league structure, has suddenly been thrown into jeopardy. As things stand, it seems quite clear that many of the small fishes in the I-League do not have a very bright future ahead of them. While the ISL is being projected as the messiah Indian football had long been waiting for, both AIFF and IMG-R have remained silent about the long term future of the Indian top-flight.
After the deal with IMG-R in December 2010, I-League clubs became more vocal about the need to make I-League a separate entity. Most of the clubs, at that time, were either making marginal profits, or incurring losses. A vast majority of their budgets were being spent on players' wages and incoming transfers. This left little room for any serious investment in the grassroots. It is true that most of the clubs were not quite the greatest specimen of professionalism either, but the system in place didn't really allow the clubs to grow in the long-run. In 2010, prior to the IMG-R deal, Mahindra United, the most decorated club from Mumbai, were disbanded. Mahindra had realized by that point of time that they weren't really going to earn much by running a professional outfit, and that they could contribute more to the game by investing in its grassroots projects. A year after Mahindra United's departure, JCT FC, North India's most successful club, said goodbye to the game. The I-League clubs were worried, and they had every reason to be. The AIFF-run I-League needed drastic changes in its structure. The revenues from the league, which were going into the pockets of the marketing partners, needed to be shared among the clubs too. It was high time the clubs were allowed to run the league themselves, and add some professionalism into the game. Every decent football league in the world is run as a separate legal entity, and it was quite clear by this time that I-League needed to be made one.
However, IMG-R decided it would serve their interests, and their agenda for Indian football, best, if they turned deaf ears to the I-League clubs' demands. The clubs kept calling foul, but there was absolutely nothing being done by the marketing partners in terms of promoting the top-flight or safeguarding the interests of the club. The All India Football Federation (AIFF), headed by Praful Patel, did little to assure the clubs about the future of the I-League either. As the months flew by, there started whispers of a new football league in the country on the lines of the Indian Premier League. The clubs got together, formed an umbrella organization to safeguard their own interests. The IPFCA was supposed to put up a united front against IMG-R's plans for Indian football, and bring down its insouciance towards the I-League. Last year, when IMG-R's plans of an IPL-style football league were announced, the IPFCA stood firm and opposed the new tournament. For some time, it seemed like IMG-R might not be able to force its new product upon the I-League clubs. However, with time, cracks opened in the clubs' united stand. It is alleged that IMG-R held meetings with certain clubs privately, even offering 'sweeteners' for their support to the proposed Indian Super League. It did meet the IPFCA on one occasion, but contrary to what the marketing partners reportedly told club officials during the meeting, IMG-R have yet to do anything substantial, or for that matter, anything at all so far, to promote the I-League.
Short-sighted club officials, many carrying overly-inflated egos, many apparently making decisions on behalf of the weaker parties in the league, at least two of them holding high positions in the AIFF, ensured that the IPFCA fell apart just months after the official announcement of IMG-R's plans of a new tournament. IMG-R didn't waste the opportunity to take advantage of the clubs' lack of unison, and went ahead with making its preparations for the ISL, whose first edition is now only two months away from commencement. All these developments over the past few months have led to the present state in Indian football, where the domestic game stands at a very precarious position. The Indian league structure is already suffering from lack of corporate interest due to its non-profitable model, which by the way, IMG-R doesn't plan to change anytime soon. ISL will only expedite its collapse. The ongoing bidding process for direct corporate entries into the I-League illustrates the corporate world's lack of enthusiasm towards the top-flight. AIFF had to issue a re-tender after no bid was made following the initial tender, while IMG-R has already blocked any attempt for an entry from Chennai, a city in which it didn't initially have a team (and ISL and I-League calendars wouldn't clash anyway), by signing an MoU with local authorities on the usage of the local stadium.
The country already doesn't produce enough quality players, and IMG-R's new phony football tournament will mean that proper football clubs in the country will not be bothered in future to seriously invest in the grassroots. European clubs associated with the league have offered meek promises of stepping in, but people who follow the Indian game will already be aware of how certain European clubs have operated academies/grassroots projects in this country, charging exorbitant amounts from trainees, and making sure that only kids with rich parents are allowed to reap the benefits from these projects. ISL will do little to improve our production line. In fact it will only bring in a regression, in the short-term future at least. By the looks of it, the ISL is clearly a business venture, and not a developmental tool for Indian football. Its ills are quite noticeable already. The first visible damage this league will inflict will be upon the Indian footballers' fitness, and the Indian national team's chances of getting past the 40-team Asian qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup, due to a pushed-back I-League season. With ISL expanding in future, India will quite possibly have a league with no grassroots base, and with no proper foundation, in terms of a league structure, which will eventually replace I-League as the country's top-flight. In place of a pan-Indian I-League, into which the most of the ideas of the ISL could have been incorporated anyway, we will instead have the saintly figures of Mukesh Ambani and Rupert Murdoch selling us tickets to meaningless football games, which will do much more good to these fine gentlemen's bank accounts, than they will to Indian football.