IFF 2019: '20-team league possible in next 10 yrs'

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MUMBAI: "India is not one country in terms of the football market but ‘a subcontinent’ with football markets operating differently everywhere. And given the size of the country, a 20-team league is not impossible in the next 10 years."  

This was the one of key points made during the opening Knowledge Session - "The Road Ahead for Indian Club Football" - of the 8th edition of the India Football Forum (IFF) 2019 Powered by Hero, held at Novotel Juhu Beach, Mumbai recently. 

In an insightful discussion, I-League CEO Sunando Dhar, Mumbai City FC CEO Indranil Das Blah and football analyst Arunava Chaudhuri deliberated on topics ranging from viable cities for clubs to how the club football landscape will unfold in the country over the coming five years, in a session chaired by SportzPower co-founder Thomas Abraham.

IFF 2019 Session 1
(LtoR) Sunando Dhar, Arunava Chaudhuri and Indranil Das Blah

It has been five years since the inception of Hero Indian Super League. But Year 2019 looks to be its real inflection point as the Indian Super League (ISL) is now clearly established as the top non-cricket league in the country. Decisions that came out at AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on October 14th, has unveiled the future roadmap for Indian domestic football, which of course includes the Hero I-League as well. 

When asked about the I-League’s development in the last five years, Dhar highlighted the point that this period has been the most exciting phase of the I-League journey. "There have been beautiful stories, last day finishes, excellent competition, no clear favourites. If you go back to the 14-15 season, with Mohun Bagan winning with three minutes left on the clock for tghe season. Then Aizawl FC, coming out of nowhere. We got first page coverage without spending money. After that it was Minerva Punjab two years back. When they were playing the last match on the last day, there were I think 22 permutations and combinations going around. Four teams could win it, five teams could go down."

"If I had to sit and script the way the I-League would pan out, I couldn't have done it any better than that."      

The icing on the cake of course was the recent announcement that the City Football Group, arguably the world's biggest club football enterprise in terms of global size and scale, was acquiring a 65% stake in Mumbai City FC, thus marking the inception of a new chapter for Indian football.

Talking about City Football Group’s "leap of faith" in the Indian market, Blah noted that CFG had been evaluating the Indian market for the past five years and since the last two years, talks for a deal between CFG and MCFC were ongoing.

Chaudhuri, meanwhile, pointed out that while ISL had put India on the global map as a growing market for football, it was I-League that helped the local ecosystem grow and widen the geographic spread of the game in the country.

Adding to that, Dhar said that he thinks given the size of the country, a 20-team league is not impossible in the next 10 years. 

Blah, meanwhile, revealed that the ISL franchises were enthusiastic about a new, bigger ISL with promotion-relegation. “Contrary to popular belief, all ISL franchises are in favour of promotion-relegation because that’s where the drama is.”

Dhar further said that the I-League had received a new perspective after D-Sports became the official broadcaster. He argeed that D-Sports, being a new player in the market, is looking to expand and broadcasting the league would assist them in garnering maximum viewership.

Blah added: “Anyone who invested thinking they’d be profitable or break even in three to five years were badly advised. All our officials were thoroughly briefed on what this is... [the ISL] is a long-term investment project and there will be gains in the future. We are committed to that vision.”

On the aspect of financial viability, the reasons behind Delhi Dynamos shifting base to Bhubaneswar and changing its name to Odisha FC and FC Pune City shutting down operations to be replaced by Hyderabad FC, were analysed. 

Chaudhuri noted that there might be various reasons behind the problems but he and it was too simplistic to say that the two cities were football "unfriendly" as there was a "lot of football happening at the grassroots level". He also explained that India is not one country in terms of the football salience but a subcontinent with markets operating differently in different locales. 

Weighing in on Chaudhuri’s opinion, Dhar added that the structure and location of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was one of the reasons that drove away the city's football fans. He noted that Ambedkar Stadium in Old Delhi was the ideal location for a club as this was where majority of football fans resided.

As the current scenario was discussed thoroughly, the session concluded with the question about the sport’s future in the country. The panelists estimated that Indian Football will have to wait till 2030 for everything to fall in place and run smoothly. Chaudhuri pointed out that the market in India was a puzzle, a difficult one but a puzzle nonetheless and therefore, it is vital to try and mix and match elements of the European-style driven I-League along with the American-style driven ISL to find the path best suited to the Indian context.

Another pressing concern was of the Indian players not receiving enough number of matches to play throughout the season. For instance, Sunil Chhetri had played the most number of matches by an Indian national team player, i.e. 27 matches, international and club matches included. This is about half of what professionals play in European countries. Therefore, players need close to 35-40 matches in a year to emerge as a player truly ready for competitive football. Ergo, a longer league season is the best and ONLY way forward.