Arnab Ray explores being a supporter of a team in a league that he doesn’t particularly like and how it seems like the battle lines are always drawn in the world of Indian football.
October 18th, 2017. A 2-2 draw at home has seen Bengaluru FC crash out of the AFC Cup at the hands of FC Istiklol of Tajikistan and put paid to their hopes of continental glory. Despite fielding a new look team and coming into the second leg on the back of a 1-0 deficit, there was hope in the stands leading up to kick-off. Hope that the Blues could prevail in the Inter-Zone Final and set-up a repeat of the 2016 final against the Air Force Club of Iraq. Hope that the Blues would go one step further and realize their Asian Dream. It wasn’t to be as Istiklol either didn’t get the script or simply decided to discard it and rely on their own brand of improv to take the tie.
The post-match emotions were pretty standard to start off with. A few choice expletives aimed at the matchday officials, lamentations about Harmanjot Khabra’s moment of madness that saw him condemned to an early shower, and plenty of what-ifs from both the legs. It was the thoughts that followed that were a bit alien. Bengaluru had decided to make the shift to the Indian Super League (ISL) which meant that the next time the Blues faithful would make the trip to the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, it would be to support a team in an entirely new league.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) signed a deal with the International Management Group-Reliance (IMG-R) in 2010. The 15-year agreement effectively saw the AIFF cede all commercial rights including that of any new league in India. IMG-R would also be responsible for the marketing of all existing domestic competitions including the-then top flight of Indian football: the I-League. It didn’t take long for IMG-R to make good on their promise of starting a new league and the Indian Super League was launched in 2013 with the inaugural season to take place the following year.
The sheer size of India makes it an attractive market and IMG-R saw a pretty big gap when it came to domestic football. Styled on the wildly popular cricket tournament, the Indian Premier League (IPL), the powers that be pulled out all the stops. An aggressive marketing campaign was built on the back of India’s love of cricket and Bollywood as big-name franchise owners were roped in. Perhaps those at the head of the campaign decided to listen to these marketing podcasts in order to get a little bit of inspiration about how to go about reaching as many people as possible. The existing European football fan base was tapped into by ensuring that each team had a “marquee” player including the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, David Trezeguet, and David James among others.
It wasn’t particularly subtle but not even the league’s loudest critics could argue against its effectiveness. They even had a hashtag that rolled off the tongue easily in #LetsFootball. What does that actually mean? It doesn’t really matter because It. Was. Everywhere. It was difficult for any Indian sports fan to escape it. It’s the type of annoying jingle that manages to embed itself into the subconscious until one finds themselves absent-mindedly humming it as they go about their day. The initial season lasted a bit longer than 2 months and saw impressive numbers flock to the stands and tune in on televisions across the country.
The loudest critics, including fans of existing I-League clubs, raised questions about the long-term benefits for Indian football that this new league could achieve. The aggressive marketing campaigns that seemed to feature the franchise owners more than footballers themselves was another point of consternation. The commercialization and commoditization of football could be deemed as a necessary evil for the game to grow in the country but did not sit well for a lot of supporters of the existing clubs. Though even the harshest critics had to acknowledge that the Indian Super League had the glitz and the glamour to attract new fans and was here to stay.
At this point, the ISL schedule did not clash with that of the I-League and ISL had no official recognition from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). The end goal was that both leagues would be merged with the ISL’s popularity being leveraged and a “proper” league would be formed. Or so we were told. As the years rolled by it became increasingly obvious that the ISL would simply brush aside the I-League and become the top flight league.
Full disclosure: I was firmly in the camp that stood against the ISL. In fact I loathed it. The in-your-face marketing, the franchise model with no promotion and relegation, the opening ceremonies, the marquee player concept, the fact that the I-League was slowly being cast aside with seemingly little thought; I hated it all. As the Blues dusted themselves off after being ousted in the AFC Cup, I feared that my next time in the West Block stand at the Kanteerava would see me supporting the team that I had grown to love except that it wouldn’t really be the same. I feared that the camaraderie and joy in West Block would be swallowed whole by the ISL machinery and indeed that Bengaluru FC would never be the same. As time would tell, I severely underestimated the people at the helm of the club and indeed the West Block contingent. The club has stuck to the same ideals and to this day maintains the same level of fan engagement, if not more, that has seen a special relationship develop.
And what of the ISL, you ask? It is nearly unrecognizable from the initial season. FC Goa, the table-toppers at the end of the recently concluded ISL season, are set to feature in the group stages of the AFC Champions League. A maximum of five foreign players can line up for a team at any point. The profile of overseas signings has seen a marked change with the likes of Del Piero and Pires a thing of the past. Instead, ATK won the playoffs and sealed AFC Cup qualification with goals from former A-League players Roy Krishna and David Williams propelling them throughout the season. The marketing campaigns are now aimed more at existing fans than drawing new ones in. All these changes, among others, has given the ISL a sheen of legitimacy and it now sits atop the Indian football pyramid. For all the good changes though, the ISL is still run by an authoritarian regime.
IMG are no longer a part of Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), the league’s governing body. This leaves Reliance, owned by the Ambanis, and media conglomerate Star India in control of the league and control they do. FSDL are acutely aware of the image that they want the ISL to project and are always on top of things when it comes to controlling the narrative. News about the functioning of the league, including signings, invariably find a way to reach Goal, with potential transfers graduating from speculation to one step away from official confirmation once published by the site. The franchises were required to obtain approval from the league for three of their foreign signings and their head coach ahead of the 2019-20 season and this was actually an improvement in terms of autonomy from earlier seasons! The updated guidelines from the league ahead of the 2020-21 season indicate that clubs do not need to seek approval from the league in terms of signings and head coaches which is a welcome change. We might even see an Indian appointed as a full-time head coach of an ISL team, something that the league has blocked in the past. Nita Ambani, the Founder Chairperson of FSDL is always referred to as ‘Mrs. Nita Ambani’ in every press release, an oddity that the writer can only speculate comes at the behest of the Chairperson’s entourage. It’s a touch that one suspects the people behind City Football Group, the new owners of Mumbai City FC, would absolutely love.
The ISL’s control extends to the terraces as well. In 2018, Bengaluru FC were fined INR 1,500,000 for ‘repeated misconduct’. The fine was imposed by the AIFF Disciplinary Committee but in recent years it has become difficult to ascertain where the AIFF begins and FSDL ends. Crowd trouble is no joking matter and violence in football must be condemned. However, in this case ‘repeated misconduct’ involved abuses being aimed at match officials. No, we’re not fucking kidding. Supporter groups from across the country have repeatedly been at odds with the authorities with banner sizes and flares the main sticking points. Hemang Doshi, a Delhi Dynamos fan since ISL’s inception says, “We always had issues with the security guys who didn’t let our drums and banners in. We couldn’t stand, there were bouncers employed to make us sit during the game. Once, we unveiled a banner that said ‘Capital Punishment’ since it was Delhi but the authorities got riled up and sent bouncers to get it removed.” Although, if you counted yourself a Delhi Dynamos fan, you’d probably give a lot to endure all this and more rather than accept the grim reality of the present.
Ahead of the 2019-20 season, the owners of Delhi Dynamos decided to relocate to Odisha and rebrand as Odisha FC in what was a body blow to the Delhi faithful. “I could write an entire book on the DDFC-OFC fiasco.”, says Hemang. “DDFC was our life – might sound cliched but it truly was. The trauma of it going away was insane. Even now, the trauma kind of comes back”. In an interview with Sportstar, club Director Rohan Sharma pointed to problems with the infrastructure in Delhi as the main reason behind the move. Hemang, though, finds it hard to sympathise, “I do believe that our sporting ecosystem is not conducive. The exorbitant stadium rent and the league’s expenses might have led to this, but to be honest its the same for every franchise. Should all franchises start looking for an option to save rent, get sponsorship and abandon the fans? I do not think so.”
Pune City had well documented financial issues and finally sold the club to new owners with the team playing out of Hyderabad in the 2019-20 season. Parth Jindal, Bengaluru FC’s CEO, went on record to say that “ISL teams are losing far more money than I-League teams”. FSDL is in-charge of branding and marketing of the league as an entity with franchises paying an annual participation fee. In return, the franchises are entitled to a share of the central revenue pool controlled by FSDL. The pros and cons of this financial model can be debated but what is undeniable is that there’s no chance the powers that be can afford to open the league up to promotion and relegation. The franchises will have to at least break even before the idea of relegation is entertained and it should come of little surprise that the proposed roadmap has explicitly stated that there will no relegation up to at least the 2024-25 season.
The ISL and I-League still co-exist although it’s been a far from peaceful or symbiotic relationship. The battle for power has been long drawn out with the AFC getting involved as well. To their credit, the I-League clubs have managed to hold their own but every victory proved only to be a stay of execution. The I-League is now living on borrowed time with the proposed roadmap abolishing parallel leagues by the 2024-25 season with the I-League now effectively Indian football’s second division. There is no doubt that the I-League has plenty of problems of its own. Yet, to be shunted aside is not what it deserved.
Much of the acrimony between FSDL and the I-League teams revolved around Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. The two big Kolkata clubs bring with them history and prestige and perhaps most importantly from ISL’s perspective, massive fan bases that can be tapped into. The Kolkata derby is a spectacle to behold and is capable of drawing massive crowds. A thorn in the flesh for their inclusion in the league was ATK, the franchise already based out of Kolkata. A convenient solution to this problem came in the form of a merger between ATK and Mohun Bagan.
Somnath Sengupta, a Mohun Bagan fan since 1994 and the man behind @IndianfootballH, is now looking at the prospect of seeing his team line up in the ISL. What are his thoughts on the league? “I’m not a big fan of the format. Especially the fact that it is a closed league where participation is decided on paying a hefty amount and the worst performing teams don’t get relegated. In the initial years, glitz took precedence over football. At least that has changed a bit”. The merger had to happen though, he says; “It is difficult to keep hold of your best players while playing in the I-League which is effectively the second division now. So playing in the ISL is necessary. Unfortunately, it seems difficult to get sponsors who will spend that much money for ISL. Mohun Bagan isn’t the best managed or most professionally run club so that makes it tougher to rope in big sponsors. Considering these points, the merger seems to be the only viable option. How much this new merged entity will sacrifice Mohun Bagan’s identity is something that we will need to see”. So, how much of a change would be too much? “I can live with a change in name as we have seen McDowell Mohun Bagan in the past. But changing the crest and jersey colour doesn’t work for me. I’m not likely to support this club if those things change.”
On the other side of the Kolkata divide sits East Bengal. Their corporate backers in Quess have decided to part ways with the club but that hasn’t seemed to deter them from being active in the transfer market. Recent reports suggest that they’ve snapped up Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Milan Singh in addition to the likes of Balwant Singh and Sehnaj Singh among others. This flurry of transfer activity has been taken by many to be an indication that East Bengal will participate in the next edition of the ISL with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee allegedly lending her voice in support as well.
Debanjan Banerjee, an East Bengal supporter and fan culture researcher at footytraveller weighs in with his thoughts on the ISL as an entity, “The main issues with the ISL which most long term Indian football fans have had is the transparency in its path to being the top tier league in India. What started off as a tournament quickly paved a path for those with deeper pockets to have their way in Indian football. Most traditional football fans in the country have a fundamental issue with the number of versions of the national league it will take for them to finally witness something which is there to stay for good- incorporating pan-India participation across multiple divisions in football, with sustainable clubs and steady growth in core numbers amongst fans.
The faith in the National Federation is at an all time low. The ISL was preceded by the I-League , which was preceded by the NFL. Throughout the three chapters in Indian football, the quantifiable progress has been marginal. The foundations still remain shaky. Even with the glitz and glamour of the ISL, two clubs have relocated, one club has merged and average attendances are on a downward spiral. The policy of promoting those with power have come with adverse effects of those with shoe-string budgets shutting down or contemplating a shut down, given there is no economic incentive to carry on. Indian football decisions should have been made taking into consideration the future of the smaller clubs, those which have over time been a key pipeline for bigger clubs and the national team. The ISL from an advertising and marketing POV is stellar, whether there is any ROI or structural growth is debatable and only time will tell.”
Where does he stand on East Bengal’s expected move to the ISL then? “As an East Bengal supporter, it is of utmost importance that my club plays in the top division of my country. Anyone who hopes for growth without East Bengal and Mohun Bagan is living in a fools paradise. But at the same time one must consider that these two legacy clubs have taken their endowment for granted and taken their fans for a ride long enough. Ideally these two clubs with the history, legacy and resources should be competing in the ACL on a year to year basis and winning it. Hence the fact that the ISL has come down firm, with their approach to dealing with these two clubs, can only mean they must change their ways if they want to progress.”
In the battle for power in Indian football, it’s fair to say that Reliance and FSDL have won. They effectively control the Indian domestic football scene and through the years the ISL has made the journey from a two month long tournament to the top flight league. Plans to extend the league to a 27-game season has been temporarily put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic but a longer league is inevitable.
Netflix’s The English Game chronicles a struggle across class divisions and focuses on a working class factory team’s bid to lift the FA Cup. A sub-theme throughout the show is that football is, and should always remain, a game that belongs to the masses. It’s a comforting thought and one that I choose to believe in or perhaps delude myself with even in the light of mounting evidence to the contrary. After all, it’s a thought that allows me to make the trip to the stadium and support the team that I love even if they do play in the Indian Super League. #LetsFootball.
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