Stagnant growth of Indian football
By Surya Solanki
Over the past few years, India has become an emerging market for football.
Various European clubs like Bayern Munich and Blackburn Rovers have landed on the shores of the Indian contingent in a bid to enhance the popularity and growth of the game in the second most populous nation in the world. The likes of Liverpool and Manchester United have launched youth academies in India and there have been major promises made by the Government to overhaul the structure of Indian football in order to compete with the European and Asian elites.
However, the discomforting fact is that even after the inflow of European team and players and the numerous promises made by the Government and official football authorities, the sport is still yet to achieve the desired and expected rate of growth.
The main reason for this hindered growth is not lack of possible investors or interest in the game, but the way the sport is officiated and governed by the All India Football Federation, also known as the AIFF.
What follows is an in-depth review of the inefficient workings of the AIFF and its consequent repercussions on Indian football.
Premier League Soccer (PLS):
The Kolkata Premier League Soccer was officially launched by the Indian Football Association (IFA) and IMG-Reliance in December 2011.
The concept of the league was based on the hugely lucrative and successful cricketing tournament, Indian Premier League. There were six teams based on franchise model and these teams were given a transfer quota to buy domestic players and foreign marquee stars.
The tournament was planned to be held after the traditional domestic league, the ‘I-League’, however several issues and problems arose with this new tournament, bringing light to AIFF’s inefficiency to conduct even a small-scale domestic-level tournament.
Even though the auctions for the players had taken place, with a whopping $7.1million being spent by the franchises to rope in foreign stars and coaches, sufficient stadiums were not allocated by the authorities to hold the matches. This subsequently led the League being abandoned for the current year and its future is already up in smokes.
Moreover, FIFA rejected the concept of the Premier League Soccer as a meagre ‘promotional event’ rather than a National League as a two-month tournament with just six teams cannot be ideally classified as a proper domestic league. Domestic leagues usually run over a span of at-least eight-nine months with more than at-least a dozen teams.
AIFF lack’s of proper planning was further emphasized by the fact that the association itself questioned the authenticity of the involved teams and wanted FIFA to suspend the clubs’ Transport Matching System, a system that allows the inflow of foreign starts to domestic teams.
Added to that, the AIFF wants the PLS to coexist with the I-League, a decision that could divert the attention of the football away from the real league towards a ‘promotional event’. This could also result in ruins and difficulties for the Indian clubs, as most of them will not classify to be included in the new league because they are not city or state based teams.
“Apart from Pune FC, Mumbai FC, United Sikkim and to some extent Shillong Lajong – none of the other clubs would classify to be included in the new league simply because they are not city based teams and are mostly institutional based. That would mean the likes of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, Dempo, Salgaocar etc may risk being dumped out of the new League after being associated with Indian football for more than 70 years and investing more than 150 crores each since their inception.”
Lack of Awareness and Knowledge to Run Football:
The AIFF consists of elected members who clearly don’t offer feasible and practical plans for Indian football.
They have been unable to take steps to take Indian football forward due to lack of knowledge and determination. They make promises and speeches that appear breezy and intriguing, but barely act upon them.
Clubs pump in millions of dollars together every year, but all the benefits of the investment go to the AIFF. The association might provide travel allowances and subsidiaries every month, but these amounts are not sufficient for sustainable running of the clubs.
Joe Morrison, the leading football pundit of the Asian subcontinent and an avid follower of Indian football, has a similar opinion:
“There is enough money in India but financial decisions are being made by people who don't understand the business of football," Morrison told me.
“The guys who make commercial decisions and decide sponsorship budgets (the money men) are predominantly older, they were brought up on a diet of cricket through their youth therefore they don't understand that today’s young generation have a huge appetite for football. “
In 2010, AIFF signed a 15-years 700-crore deal with IMG-Reliance wherein the latter will have to develop a ‘sustainable sporting model’ for the game and reconstruct the schedules and formats of the domestic competitions. However, the agreement also gave IMG-Reliance all the TV Rights to Indian football, which means that all the money generated from selling the broadcasting rights of the I-League trickle down into the deep pockets of IMG-Reliance, instead of being given to the financially unstable and impoverished clubs.
Moreover, several clubs have also criticized the workings of the IMG-Reliance and the company’s unwillingness to improve the league. There have been fallouts between the shareholders of the clubs and the AIFF over the past few years and it is becoming quite evident that the ‘galvanizing’ deal with IMG-Reliance was a poor and illogical decision taken by the Indian football’s governing body, that will ensure that the clubs remain virtually penniless for 15 years.
Barring the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, which was reconstructed due to the 2010 Commonwealth Games, neither the Government nor the AIFF have taken steps to upgrade or construct stadiums and infrastructure for development of Indian football.
Even the Indian national team has been asked to relocate to artificial turfs in the past because the natural turfs are often in shambles and are poorly maintained.
The Ambedkar Stadium, which hosted the important and prestigious home-leg of India’s 2014 World Cup qualifying tie against the United Arab Emirates last year, does not even have proper drainage facilities as the pitch overflowed with water when the heavens opened up their gates during the tie.
What is more shocking is the fact the no Indian clubs has its own stadium. Even though the owners of the club do have the responsibility of building the stadiums for their respective clubs, but since they can’t possibly generate the required money, it becomes the moral obligation of the Government to fill up these financial gaps.
Stadiums in Japan and Italy have been built by the Government and in many countries the Government have also taken on the responsibility to help clubs develop world-class youth academies.
However, in India, the AIFF has shown remote interest in developing stadiums, infrastructures and academies that could substantially increase Indian football’s growth.
Hope for Change?:
Yes, Indian football is still going in the positive direction. The popularity of the sports has grown exponentially over the past few years and there are currently millions of dollars just waiting to be invested in the game.
As aforementioned in the article, European clubs have set up academies in the country (albeit by using their own funds and receiving minimal help from the AIFF or the Government) and the nation could soon see an influx of talented players coming up through the youth ranks and making a daunting impression on the world stage.
“Ten years ago this debate that is currently raging about Indian football would not have happened. In fact it would not have happened 5 years ago. Every academy that sets up, every initiative that starts (and quite often fails) is in my opinion progress,” Morrison said.
“There is a generation who are currently young middle managers that 10 to 15 years from now will be in positions as company executive directors and they will make sponsorship calls based on their love of football.“
“Things are not going to suddenly change overnight. Let us cut the crap and start being open and honest about what needs fixed and most importantly remove the small minded individuals who are hindering the rapid improvement of Indian football - they know who they are!”