The great Indian football churn

India’s Fifa World Rankings gloss over dismal state of affairs

 

India climbed to 96th in the latest Fifa World Rankings, the country’s highest position for nearly two decades. It is a fantastic achievement for a team that has been in perennial slumber and slumped to a lowly 174th in 2015.

But Fifa World Rankings aside, Indian football is in a churn and the roadmap that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) prepares at this juncture will determine the future. The AIFF, although an autonomous sports body, is mainly run as a government organisation with bureaucratic red-tapism plaguing its functioning. Its president, Praful Patel, is a politician and former minister and is never known to have had any love for the game.

In 2010, the AIFF signed a deal with Nita Ambani-led IMG-R group. According to the terms of the deal, IMG-R was granted all commercial rights to football in India, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights. In short, it handed over its autonomy to a corporate entity for Rs 700 crore.

IMG-R formed a subsidiary, Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), to run an Indian Premier League-style masala tournament. It invited bids from corporate houses for teams and started the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014 with eight franchises. The three tournaments it has since organised can best be described as a retirement benefit for world football’s elite, once top dogs for their respective clubs who now treat the ISL as a post-retirement benefit scheme to keep the money flowing. All the so-called marquee players that these clubs signed, including Nicolas Anelka (35 years old), Robert Pires (41 years old) and Diego Forlan (37 years old) were either all retired or at a stage where they could hardly influence the game anymore.

The first season was relatively successful with fans thronging the grounds to experience the new phenomenon. Since then, both the quality of football and attendances have dwindled.

A major clause in the deal between the FSDL and the franchises was that they would invest money in grassroots development. Three years on and India is still to see the benefits of that “investment”. Spanish giants Atletico Madrid recently announced that it would sever ties with Atletico de Kolkata, the two-times ISL champions co-owned by the club, citing a lack of development. “For us, India is a very important country and Calcutta a very dear city. But we either need to develop or leave,” Atletico Madrid said in a statement to the Spanish press.

In three years, the Kolkata club has neither managed to set up a permanent academy campus nor begun work on one. The club recruits young players at the start of the season through an open trial for the nursery league in Bengal and releases them once the season ends — that remains its only contribution to grassroots development. Apart from Kerala Blasters, North East United FC and Pune City FC, none of the other franchises have made any attempt to develop grassroots infrastructure.

But the AIFF also has to shoulder part of the blame. Any corporate house that invests money into a sport will see it as an expansion of their business footprint, and would expect it to make financial sense to continue investing. However, Rajeev Piramal, co-owner of the now-defunct I-League club Pune FC, said the AIFF-IMG-R deal was structured in such a way that it took out the “sustainable” aspect of the picture.

The deal works in a manner that is confusing, to say the least. IMG-R will pay a certain amount to the AIFF, which will then have to manage all its activities with it. If it manages to bring in any sponsorship, the commercial partners will take away the revenue. In case of a broadcast deal at either the regional or the national level, IMG-R would pocket the profits, while the clubs would be left with the peanuts that the AIFF provides them.

The question of sustainability is important in the context of the parallel running of the I-League and the ISL, a short-term solution the AIFF came up with as a compromise between the franchises and the legacy clubs.

A Scroll.in report on Why Indian players think ISL is miles ahead of I-League suggested that the footballers don’t agree with the common suggestion that they chose the lucrative deals with ISL franchises over contracts with legacy clubs not because of the money, but the facilities and opportunities on offer. It quoted several players who claimed that the facilities were beyond the I-League clubs. But there is a flaw in this argument.

Till this season, the ISL only ran for three months and most of the franchises would rent out a training facility for that period. Now that the league would be expanded to six months, it would be interesting to see how these franchises come up with facilities that satisfy the Indian players.

There is also the matter of securing a licence from the AFC now that Asian football’s governing body has given its nod to ISL clubs to take part in the AFC Cup. All the I-League clubs hold an AFC licence, while Bengaluru FC, which was in the I-League last season and had to fulfil its licensing commitments, is the sole ISL franchise to hold it. Among the mandatory requirements for an AFC licence are permanent training facilities, , which none of the ISL franchises have at this moment, and a youth academy. With FSDL taking away all revenue and the franchises not being in a position to make profits for at least the next few years, how much the owners invest in these facilities is open for debate.

The same report quoted former India international Nirmal Chhetri, who alleged instances of non-payment by I-League clubs.

“I-League clubs may have history and legacy but they can’t not pay players and treat them like this,” he said. “It takes time to file cases and get money from these clubs. Footballers don’t speak up for fear of their future. For the first time in my career I am home without a contract and hope to get drafted in the ISL,” he added.

Chhetri may be forgiven for basking in the glory of his new ISL contract, but a look to China would probably give him sleepless nights. It has recently emerged that 13 out of the 16 clubs that play in the Chinese Super League could be forced to forfeit the competition following allegations of not paying the players for at least four months. These were the same clubs that smashed wage ceilings to bring in the likes of Carlos Tevez, Oscar, and Ezequiel Lavezzi on huge packages from top European clubs. Now, they are staring at bankruptcy despite the backing of some of China’s biggest industrial houses. This goes to show that without a sustainable business model, no club or franchise anywhere in the world can survive.

Another important point that the Scroll.in report missed was the lack of players. India is not blessed with too many quality players, and with three leagues (ISL, I-League, and I-League 2) running simultaneously, albeit for a year, a shortage of players will be created. The ISL franchises have already signed their players from the draft, while those who remained unsold signing for I-League clubs for much lower wages. However, with most clubs going after quality, some average players will be left without contracts. Nirmal Chhetri would do well to answer how these players would fend for themselves.

A fallout of the razzmatazz surrounding the ISL would leave the I-League clubs in a dire situation. The buzz and glamour of the ISL will impact clubs that have been the guardians of the game in the country for decades. Subrata Dutta, senior vice-president of the AIFF, recently said: “If by then, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have lost sheen because it would be obvious to all that the I-League would, in terms of marketing and maybe broadcast quality, not be in the same category as the ISL, what will happen to the domestic football structure.”

The sponsorship scenario in Indian football is dire. Asking I-League clubs like Aizawl FC, Shillong Lajong FC, and Churchill Brothers to shell out Rs 15 crore franchise fee every year, when there is no guarantee of return from revenues earned, was a fundamental flaw. The AIFF know quite well that these clubs run on shoestring budgets, yet it bent to FSDL’s whims over such the payment.

Dutta said he wished the ISL had shown flexibility in accommodating these community clubs into its fold.

The one silver lining is that the AFC’s acceptance of the ISL model came with a rider of expanding it to include I-League clubs into the fold. An AFC statement on the matter made it clear that this is just a temporary short-term ‘bridging solution’.

However, that would mean introducing a pyramidal system that would include relegation and promotion. When FSDL signed up the franchises, it had given them exclusivity over a particular city for five years, a major reason why it was hellbent in opposing the inclusion of Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal into the ISL. But, the contract contains a relegation clause only after at least 10 years. The question is once the pyramidal system is introduced, how many franchises would still be interested in case they went down? The demise of several teams, the latest being Chivas USA, in the franchise system of Major League Soccer does not make for a bright outlook.

The franchise system that is prevalent in the United States, in basketball, American football, baseball, and football also allows owners to uproot and relocate their teams. According to AIFF, the ISL will create a new generation of football fans in India, but allowing team owners to relocate at will would nip that prospect in the bud.

The two-league dilemma aside, the national team is also at a crossroads. While a Quint column has pointed out exactly how India has climbed to 96th in the Fifa World Rankings, it still took some doing.

And credit must go to the players and the team management for doing the unthinkable. What they did with the kind of infrastructure made available is commendable and it is the players who now need to come out and ask for better facilities, for both club and country.

How much that will affect the bureaucratic AIFF still remains a major question. For a country that aspires to crack the top 50, it still doesn’t have a permanent manager for the Under-23 side with senior team coach Stephen Constantine taking additional charge of the team. Understanding this folly would at least give the AIFF a sense of direction.

India is also hosting the Fifa Under-17 World Cup this year and has a team that is capable of springing a few surprises. But even that team was mired in controversy after the sacking of coach Nicolai Adam for alleged mistreatment of the young players.

Indian officials have always been notorious for favouritism — either towards players or foreigners they bring in to steady a ship. The appointment of former journeyman Australian footballer Scott O’Donnell as the AIFF academy instructor is an instance that beggars belief. He is known for his proximity to former India skipper Bhaichung Bhutia and it has been alleged that Bhutia pulled the strings with the AIFF to get him on board.

The appointment of Adam, a UEFA Pro Licence holder and vastly experienced in developing young players, was hailed as a massive coup for India. But immediately after his arrival, he drew the AIFF hierarchy’s wrath for expressing dissatisfaction at the manner of training. In a 2016 interview to Goal.com, he had said: “When I came here, the training wasn’t intense. A year ago there was no intensity. Now we’re improving from a physical point of view.”

It was this intensity that the players, always used to having their way with coaches, refused to accept. There were also rumours of a fallout with the AIFF’s technical committee that resulted in his sacking.

Indian football has always boasted of a massive fan base and support whose passion for the game can provide competition to top football-playing nations across the world, but the lack of mainstream promotion had turned them on to European leagues and away from the sport at home. Any decision by the AIFF from this point onwards has the potential to spark the sport back into life or confine it to the sidelines for another few decades. The sooner the babus that run the show from Football House in New Delhi realise this, the better it would be for the game.

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