Indian mythology tells of a literal sleeping giant named ‘Kumbhakaran’ that slept for months at a time and it was nearly impossible to wake him up. The Ramayana explains that the reason for this was that a curse had been placed on the monster that would keep him asleep, so to stop him from causing extreme amounts of mayhem. Although it may not seem so, Kumbhakaran’s story is eerily similar to that of Indian football as a whole. The nation’s football state has been considered to be below par ever since its independence. A country of 1.2 billion people, a land area of 3.28 million square kilometres and great wealth has been unable to make any waves in the sea of football. Certain short periods of marginal success have been considered to be the high points of Indian football, only proving how bad the situation really is.
Coming back to the story of Kumbhakaran and tying him together to Indian football. In the context of it, Kumbhakaran itself is Indian football, whereas the curse of deep sleep placed on it has been placed by none other than the Indian authorities, governments, governing bodies, and to some extent, the people. To help you further understand what exactly I mean, and why I hold the pessimistic viewpoint that says that Indian football isn’t waking up anytime soon, I’ve made a list of the six horsemen that are driving and have driven Indian football to the apocalypse.
Before we get started though, I’d like to make it clear that I too believe that India is a sleeping giant in the world of football. However, what I don’t believe is that its anaesthesia is wearing off anytime soon. Even if everything I talk about miraculously gets fixed in the next three years, India is still a long way off from establishing itself as an Asian football powerhouse, let alone a global one.
No country has a professional football structure quite like India. There are two top-level leagues mostly separated from each other, and both have their unique set of problems.
The top league in India has for long been the past 11 years, the I-League. The I-League is a more traditional league that has ten teams as of current and follows the relegation/promotion system. Before the I-League, there was the National Football League, which was doomed from the start. The NFL aimed to bring professionalism and success to Indian league football, but it suffered from very poor infrastructure and a severe lack of unprofessionalism from the clubs. Players hadn’t been paid, no one watched the league, it was a complete shambles. In 2007, the AIFF decided that it was time for a change and rechristened the league as the I-League and introduced a variety of changes.
The I-League started off with 10 teams, 8 from the National Football League and two from the second division. Even the I-League couldn’t truly fix the problems that the NFL faced. A lot of the clubs faced financial difficulties, and four clubs folded altogether. As the years went on, the I-League’s attendances climbed and it kept steadily getting expanded into different parts of the country. After early concerns about how the 12 teams only came from three different cities, the league was expanded to 14 teams so more areas of India would be included.
Despite a lack of sponsors and a lack of viewers, the I-League was doing alright for itself. It was expanding steadily, more of the country was being included, and it seemed that slowly but surely, Indian football was on some sort of an upward climb. After the national team reached the Asian Cup in 2011 for the first time in 27 years, a lot of the players gained international attention and the league got an increase in viewers, attendances, and minor sponsors.
The state of Indian football then wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but it had certainly seen worse. Some major issues still plagued the league, such as the lack of marketing and promotion for it, and a peculiar business model that meant that the income from merchandise sales, ticket sales, and television revenue went directly to the All India Football Federation, and not the clubs. Teams in the I-League also earn a very small amount of money for participating in or winning the league. The champions earn 1 crore rupees (110,000 GBP), whereas the runners-up, third place, and fourth place teams earn the equivalent of 66 thousand, 44 thousand and 27 thousand British Pound respectively.
On the pitch, the standard of football in the I-League isn’t too good, but it is far from the biggest concern. For reference, the I-League currently contains 10 teams, after many major clubs left the league and a few new entities joined due to the formation of the ISL and disputes that followed.
The average attendance of the 2017-18 season was just 10,280 people per match. North Eastern club NEROCA enjoyed the highest average attendance at 21,382 people per game, whereas the Churchill Brothers with a mean viewership of just 2,921 people per game were at the bottom. In 2016-17, the average overall attendance was just 5,233 people per game, and the most viewed game only saw 29,067 people attend. The oldest and most famous rivalry in India is between Kolkata clubs Mohun Bagan and East Bengal FC. This derby is always the most attended game in the league, with average attendances revolving around 55-60 thousand people.
Continentally, I-League clubs never really do that well. Two clubs have reached the semi-finals of the AFC Cup (=Asian Europa League), and more recently, Bengaluru FC reached the final of the competition. Other than that, Indian clubs barely ever reach the knockout rounds of the competition. The I-League also regularly sees teams just fade from existence and be replaced with newer teams. Sometimes these teams go to regional leagues, and sometimes they just disappear.
That brings us to the end of the discussion about the I-League. Let’s now switch our attention to the Indian Super League, and talk about how the coexistence of two largely dysfunctional leagues has made the entire Indian club football structure an unorganised, unruly, unpredictable mess.
For those who don’t know, the biggest sport in India is cricket. Of all three formats of cricket, Twenty-Twenty or T-20 cricket is the most popular. The Premier Sports league in India is the Indian Premier League or the IPL. Founded in 2008, the IPL quickly emerged as the wealthiest, most popular and biggest cricket league in the world. In India, the IPL is the biggest sporting event by a landslide.
The format of the IPL involves eight teams facing off in a round robin style before the top four play in the playoffs to decide the overall winner. The whole tournament takes around a month and a half or two months to complete and is the primary attraction on television in the country during that time.
In 2010, the AIFF and IMG-Reliance came together and signed a multimillion dollar, 15-year deal that gave IMG-Reliance commercial rights to sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, franchising and video rights to create an entirely new football league. The IMG is a massive American event management company that already manages the IPL and numerous other tournaments worldwide, whereas Reliance is one of the biggest conglomerates in India owned by the richest man in the country. The deal meant that capitalism was to prevail and leave the best interests of Indian football in the dust.
The ISL was and still is based on the model of the IPL. The competition is short, well-marketed, well-funded and owned and endorsed by famous celebrities, organisations, and other influential entities. The founding eight teams were from different parts of the country and were all financially backed well. One of the teams, Atletico de Kolkata was backed by none other than Atletico Madrid, as players such as David Trezeguet, Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Carlos, Luis Garcia and others came to the league as marquee players.
The intentions of the ISL aren’t inherently wrong. The MLS follows a similar model but is larger and more sustainable than the ISL, but the cores of the leagues are similar. Quickly, due to being more of a lowest common denominator league and having a wider appeal, extensive marketing, and heavy funding, the ISL took over as the premier football league of the country.
The players in the ISL are paid more than the I-League, the winners earn more, the attendances are decently high, fanbases are being formed, more sponsors are being attracted, companies like Puma, Adidas, and Nike are endorsing the league, the nation’s main motorcycle company Hero MotoCorp is injecting 25 million dollars into the league as title sponsors. The league also has more media coverage than the I-League, and on paper, looks like the perfect replacement for the dysfunctional and outdated I-League. So, what’s the problem?
Well, as they say. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. The state of the ISL as of now is far from good, but in all honesty, it never was too good. Before it even started, the clubs of the I-League were far from happy and protested against the formation of the ISL. The clubs believed that IMG-Reliance had long overlooked the I-League and did barely anything to promote it or improve it. Dates for meetings between IMG-Reliance, a union of the I-League clubs and the AIFF were set, but for unknown reasons, they never took place.
Long story short, the AIFF left it’s faithful but modest wife for the hot, rich girl, and as expected, it didn’t turn out too well. We’ve already discussed how the I-League is being buried into its grave due to the formation of this gimmick in the name of a sports league, so let’s discuss how the ISL itself is miserably failing.
After a strong start commercially in the first two years of the ISL, it has started to fizzle out and lose all the hype. In the 2017-18 season, the average attendances hit an all-time low of 15,000 people per game, despite there being two more teams added. The television and mobile viewership numbers also started falling, whereas the star names that could be seen in the first two seasons also faded away. Atletico Madrid separated itself from Atletico de Kolkata, as the AIFF started to understand the harsh reality of the ISL.
The grassroots programme of the ISL turned out to be minuscule and at times, non-existent, whereas the infrastructure of the grounds and areas surrounding the grounds of the ISL has seen minor improvements. Until 2017, the AFC didn’t even recognise the ISL as a league, just as a tournament. On paper, the I-League is still the top club competition in the country, but it is inferior to the ISL in many ways. However, the league itself is more authentic than the ISL, meaning that India currently has no proper football league that is 100% the top league in the country.
The ISL was subject to criticism by those who really cared about the future of football in India. It was never meant to actually increase the standards of football in India, or to make India the next footballing powerhouse, or to establish a quality production line. No, it was just a money grab meant to increase the popularity of a game that is already extremely popular in the country.
India national team coach Stephen Constantine criticised the structure of the Indian league system and called for either the ISL or I-League to merge or run simultaneously. Currently, players play for both ISL and I-League clubs at different times of the year.
A merger would make the most sense, as the financial and off the pitch aspects of the ISL combined with the authenticity and history of the I-League would mean that India would actually have a good league system with the potential to succeed. As of now though, that seems like a distinct possibility, and knowing India, we’re more likely to see another gimmick come out of the blue.
India’s budget for its Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports this year was around 243,207,000 pounds. In words, that is two hundred and forty-three million, two hundred and seven thousand. That much money could make the I-League the richest, best, most popular and biggest sports league in India, or even Asia by a lightyear. Now I know that not all 243 million pounds will go to football, but even if 20-25 go into it, and around 25-30 more are injected by private entities, Indian football could be on a different plane. In China, for example, millions and millions of dollars are put into football each year so that the country can erase its lowly record in football. Football schools, stadiums, and entire grassroots networks are being created in one year, whereas in India, everyone is cosy with the same constant state of failure.
As an Indian, I can confirm that this attitude isn’t only limited to football or sports. In this country, everyone is content with what is going on, and speaking up, or campaigning for change makes you look like a complete and utter outcast. Anyway, back to football, because if I start talking about the number of problems in India, I’ll never stop.
The Board of Cricket Control in India or the BCCI is the richest cricket body in the world. It is a privatised organisation and its real wealth is considered to be exponentially higher than what it says it is. This is primarily due to corruption and other shady things that are common in India, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. All cricket in India is handled by the BCCI, and cricket is the most popular sport in India. That means that the Sports Ministry doesn’t have a large part to play in cricket development. That further means that the massive budget isn’t massively eaten up by cricket.
Other major sports in India are badminton, tennis, athletics and in some circles, archery, weightlifting and such. However, India is not as good in anything as it is in cricket. The facilities in the nation for these sports are far from world-class, and the facilities that are really good, are all privately owned.
So, where does so much of this huge budget go then? Well, a lot of it is simply eaten up by politicians, the friends of those who are influential, and those involved in the schemes that the MYAS launches. Many schemes are simply money laundering schemes. A very infamous example of corruption in the sports scene in India was in 2010, where a bunch of politicians was accused of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars to themselves in the name of the Commonwealth Games held in Delhi.
These dark arts mean that not only football but sport itself is overlooked in India. However, the authorities and the minsters aren’t the only things overlooking football in the country. The notorious Indian media covers every little thing that every Indian cricketer does, however, when the Indian national team does something of note, it goes unnoticed or is given a small 10 odd second segment. Sports like golf are covered in India on the news, but no one knows about our own footballers.
When you ask someone which Indian footballers they know of, they’ll give you two names. Sunil Chhetri and Baichung Bhutia. No one will know that Gurpreet Singh Sandhu played in the Europa League, or that Subrata Pal played in Europe, nope. Then when you talk to those same people about Indian football, they’ll tell you that India can’t produce good players and all the players are terrible, and they’ll blame somebody. When you don’t know anything about Indian football and do nothing to bring any awareness to it, but just blindly hate on it, you’re not doing it any favours.
Earlier this year, India captain Sunil Chhetri recorded a video pleading to the people to come to the Indian team’s games, and get behind them. That video made a lot of waves, and on a positive note, the next games India played were all jam-packed. This tells us that India has a love for football, and really cares about the game, however, it’s ignored so much by everybody that people simply forget about Indian football.
Football in India is also very bizarrely distributed. Some regions of the country are crazy about football, whereas others don’t know anything about it. North Eastern India is the hub of football in India, and many of the national team’s players are from the region. The state of Kerala in South India and the state of West Bengal are home to some of the most passionate fans and biggest clubs in the country whereas the former Portuguese colony of Goa has its share of football aficionados and entities. The North and Central parts of India are absolutely devoid of any sort of major football team, or culture.
The major cities of India like Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai are where most of the football fans in India reside, however, not many of them are involved with Indian football. Due to recent developments, the fandom of Indian football is growing but is still far from the more football savvy areas of the country in terms of size and passion.
All things considered, India has the money, the resources, and the people that can make Indian football reach new heights, but due to an infatuation with cricket and western sport, our progress is being stifled by none other than ourselves.
*this article is the first part of a three-part series that talks about the various difficulties Indian football is facing.