Arnab Ray has a look at the upcoming player draft ahead of the Indian Super League season and how it could adversely affect Bengaluru FC’s Asian campaign.
It has been a year since Bengaluru FC announced the appointment of Albert Roca as the club’s new coach. To say it has been an eventful year would be an understatement. The Spaniard begun his time at the club with a fairy tale AFC Cup run that saw the Blues fall one step short of continental glory. The immediate success of the team took plenty by surprise given Roca’s affinity to possession based football, a style of play not often seen in Indian football.
However, the I-League was a far more turbulent journey for the defending Champions as the ex-Barca man tried to instill his philosophy into the team. Yes, there was an element of bad luck with a number of individual mistakes leading directly to crucial points being dropped but overall the performances were that of a side undergoing a massive change in philosophy and style of play. A shift to 3 at the back towards the end of the season worked well as the pieces finally came together for Roca and his side. The resurgence in form was not enough to get their title charge back on track but saw the Blues win the Federation Cup to ensure qualification to next season’s edition of the AFC Cup.
On the continental front, Bengaluru started the campaign with a view to better last year’s exploits. A change in the AFC Cup format meant that the Blues had to overcome both Mohun Bagan and Maziya from Maldives to top the group and qualify for the knockout stages as the South Zone Champions. Thus, with the team looking settled and showing encouraging form, one would expect another deep run in the Cup. Unfortunately, things are never that simple in the world of Indian football where organized chaos has become the norm.
The I-League and Indian Super League (ISL) have run as separate entities for the past 3 seasons with the I-League still being recognized as the nation’s premier football competition. The I-League had the legitimacy of being the only AFC recognized league with Asian qualification on offer. The ISL on the other hand was in essence a domestic tournament run by a private entity. However, not even the ardent of I-League enthusiasts can deny the success of the ISL in terms of drawing in large crowds. Football Sports Development Ltd (FSDL), the “commercial partners” (read overlords) of the AIFF saw a gap in the market and threw a bucket load of money at it. Aggressive marketing, roping in big name players and coaches, and excellent broadcasting of the competition has made the ISL what it is today. Contrast this to the I-League where the promotion budget is a mere fraction when compared to that of the ISL. Even as AIFF officials continued to proclaim that the I-League had a place in the future of Indian football, it was obvious that the latter’s days were numbered. The commercial behemoth that is the ISL was well and truly ready to swallow the I-League whole.
There were widespread reports that the 2017 edition of the I-League would be its last as the top division with a “merger” on the cards. This merger would reportedly see the ISL become the top division with the addition of Bengaluru FC along with the Kolkata giants, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, to the big boys club. Other clubs would be frozen out simply because they would not have the budget for ISL. A closed system with no promotion/relegation would mean that the I-League clubs would be relegated to the second division with no foreseeable hopes of featuring in the top division, at least for a few years. Unfortunately for FSDL and AIFF, Aizawl FC’s remarkable fairy tale I-League victory would put a spanner in the works.
Relegating the Champions to the second division would be a move far too outlandish even for those in charge of the AIFF. The people in charge took a break from projecting earnings from next season’s ISL and eked out a compromise. The I-League would continue to be the top division with AFC Champions League qualification up for grabs. On the other hand, the ISL would now be an actual league running for a longer duration without any ludicrous playoffs or final to determine the winners. The final move to legitimize the ISL was to ensure that the winners were given AFC Cup qualification. Bengaluru FC and a new side backed by the Tata Group had bids accepted while the Kolkata clubs stayed in I-League after problems regarding the franchise fee and location of their home grounds. The process to reach this consensus was strenuous to say the least with meetings the flavour of the month. In fact, the drama surrounding the Kolkata clubs and AIFF was almost soap opera worthy with plenty of convenient leaks to the media and of course political intervention to further compound matters.
As the dust finally settled following all the posturing, threat making, and media sniping, further details of the upcoming ISL emerged. Rumors of a player draft had been doing the rounds for a while with FSDL actually signing Indian players for the draft as soon as the Federation Cup finished. Till date, FSDL haven’t deemed it prudent to publicly release details about the draft. Instead, fans have had to rely on reports in the media to piece together details of how their teams will line up in the upcoming season.
To summarize, each club (or franchise) is allowed to retain two of their Indian players from the previous season in addition to three under-21 players. The retention of each senior player or capped under-21 player would see the club forfeit a round of participation in the eventual draft. The Tata owned team from Jamshedpur will enter the draft in the first round owing to the fact that they are a new team. The foreign recruits of course will have to be signed by the clubs directly. By far the most ridiculous rule though is that each team must sign a minimum of 7 foreign players in their squad of 25. In essence, this move limits the number of Indian players in a domestic league! Having said that, the move to increase the minimum number of Indians required on the pitch at all times to 6 is a positive step.
Almost the entirety of world football runs on the same model when it comes to player recruitment. A transfer system that has been changed and perfected over the years is in place and it is simply mind boggling that FSDL have tried to reinvent the wheel. Yes, there are problems of an inflated market with crazy money being thrown around especially in Europe but Indian football is still miles away from that, especially when it comes to domestic players. The decision to go ahead with the draft, even after the Football Players’ Association of India (FPAI) made it clear that most of the players opposed it, is yet another example of how the players’ wishes are far from the mind of the governing body when it comes to making executive decisions.
The fact that the players will have no say at all in which team they will represent boggles the mind especially considering the longer league format. Players will simply have to wait and watch as the draft unfolds as they are picked up by whichever team deems them worthy of a previously agreed price with ISL. With a salary cap being enforced, players will also be wary of pricing themselves out of a move. Apart from the financial angle, a player’s decision to join a club could be governed by a number of factors. The manager at the helm of the club, the city the club is based out of, the competition in the squad that will finally determine the amount of game time, among other things all have bearing on a player’s decision to join a club. All these concerns have been swept aside by those in charge in a horribly authoritarian move by FSDL.
Apart from this, a draft makes building a team all the more harder. An open transfer market would see teams able to cherry-pick those players that would fit into their sides and snap them up. Instead, teams will have to wait and watch to see how each round of the draft plays out before making their next picks. How does such a system help any of the teams or their managers sign the players they want?
The draft also promotes short term thinking, even if it is reportedly just for one season. Would clubs waste a valuable draft pick on a 22-year-old player still developing or would they prefer to sign a more established player in his stead? Even if the 22-year-old has a higher ceiling in terms of potential, it makes no sense for the club to opt for him and actively try to develop him as a key player over the course of the next few seasons. It is this short term mentality of player recruitment that has hurt Indian football over the years with clubs wary of investing in young prospects that have to be nurtured. Young footballers need to be given longer contracts and an environment wherein they can progress; the draft system with its inherent short term nature provides anything but that. So why did FSDL go ahead with the draft system even in the light of opposition from the players and FPAI? Perhaps it’s all about the money.
The official line seems to be that the draft is required to ensure a level playing field for all the teams. Bengaluru FC would have entered the ISL with a team comprising of a number of Indian Internationals which apparently would not be fair to the other teams. An argument can be made for the Tata owned team since they are a new club but what of the other teams? They have participated in 3 editions of the ISL already and should have at the very least a solid core of domestic players at the club. Why weren’t players signed on longer contracts in 2016? Why did so many clubs opt to sign players on loan deals? Why aren’t clubs that all want to see the growth of Indian football not investing heavily in its biggest resource, the players themselves? Why are there revolving doors at the clubs with so many changes in playing personnel every season? Why do the clubs not want to negotiate and sign domestic players? Could it be simply a matter of money? After all a controlled environment wherein players are drafted with a fixed price would work wonders in limiting the net spend of ISL teams. Yes, money talks in football but why should the players suffer? If it’s a question of the club owners looking to reduce their losses, isn’t there a central revenue pool for ISL to dip into and distribute from? Why are the players forced to bear the brunt? Why should fans have to see their teams being systematically picked apart? These are questions that must be posed and indeed answered by those in charge but in the murky waters of Indian football governance, transparency is the last thing to be expected.
So what of Bengaluru FC and their quest to become AFC Cup Champions? To put it bluntly, it has taken a massive hit. It must be said that the decision to join ISL at this juncture was the right one. The ISL is undoubtedly the now and the future of Indian domestic football. Recognition from AFC and a longer format have given it the gleam of legitimacy that it was missing thus far. Put simply, it had to be done and bidding for the ISL meant accepting the draft system for the first year. For BFC, the timing of the draft could not be much worse.
The club has retained both Sunil Chhetri and Udanta Singh while also signing 31-year-old Australian midfielder, Erik Paartalu. The defensive duo of John Johnson and Juanan Gonzalez will feature for the Blues again and owner, Parth Jindal has indicated that the club will look to retain their under-21 players, Daniel Lalhlimpuia, Nishu Kumar, and Malsawmzuala. Apart from that, it will be over to the draft and more foreigner signings to make up the rest of the squad. Come the 23rd of August, when the Federation Cup Champions take on 4.25 of North Korea in the Inter-Zonal playoff semifinals, we could see a whole host of players making their debuts for the club.
One year after being appointed at the helm, Albert Roca may well be suffering from deja vu. A year of carefully moulding the players at his disposal has been largely undone in one fell swoop. Despite finishing as runners-up last season, Bengaluru have a mountain to climb to replicate their heroics this time around. Many expected plenty of changes with the club moving to the ISL but the sheer magnitude is difficult to accept. The club has featured in only 4 seasons but the prospect of seeing a Eugeneson Lyngdoh, a CK Vineeth, or a Rino Anto in another club’s colours at the Kanteerava is unimaginable for many. Yet, that is what the club and its fans may have to deal with come ISL 2017/18. Before that though, there’s the small matter of the knockout stages of the AFC Cup to contend with. Roca will have to dig deep and make the most out of a short pre-season; the club’s only preparation for the games. If he and his players could emulate last season’s run to the finals, it would be simply extraordinary. It would a feat achieved with potentially two entirely different sets of players turning out for the club. To reach the promised land of Continental glory though, Bengaluru FC will first have to overcome a domestic hurdle in the form of FSDL and its player draft. Such is Indian football.