How the ISL, Heavy Handed and Smug, Set Itself on a Path of Ruin

ISL could have joined hands with India’s ‘legacy' clubs, leveraged their strengths and planted the seeds for a more inclusive future.

Indian Super League (ISL) clubs Delhi Dynamos FC and FC Pune City ceased to exist last month. Normally, you would add them to a growing list of clubs to have folded in India in recent years, and move on. But this isn’t a normal case.

Delhi and Pune are the first clubs from ISL to shut down. And this is significant because the ISL, a private football league created in 2014, has been allowed to manipulate the sport’s domestic structure and monopolise its own interests on the very promise that it would prevent this from happening.

ISL is an invitation-only football league which started with eight new clubs. It had no room for clubs that already existed. It is essentially a closed group of rich new clubs – with big businessmen for owners and celebrities for ambassadors – that have legally, but immorally, seized control of the sport.

It has undermined India’s actual national league, the I-League (which includes Mohun Bagan and East Bengal) and, in turn, endangered the clubs outside its ecosystem – leading to several of them shutting down, including prominent clubs like Dempo and Pune FC.

Since 2014, India has been the only country to run two top-tier leagues approved by its football association (the All India Football Federation, or AIFF). This is a convoluted two-league system that has given rise to a major conflict within the game – and it is not difficult to see why.

Abhishek Bachhan Ranbir Kapoor, Nita Ambani, and Sachin Tendulkar at an ISL event. While all three men own teams in the ISL, Ambani is the founding chairperson of the league. Photo: Reuters

ISL is co-owned by powerhouses Reliance and Star India. As the AIFF’s commercial partner since 2010, Reliance is also responsible for the growth of I-League – which is broadcast by Star India. This is an obvious conflict of interest that has led to I-League becoming an afterthought.

AIFF has simply stood and watched, handcuffed by the lucrative contract it had signed with Reliance in 2010 in which it granted its partner the authority to not only create its own tournament but also establish it as the foremost one in India.

All of this, allowed on the assurance that ISL would create a professional, controlled and sustainable environment in which its clubs would not suffer from Indian football’s age-old problems.

And yet, here we are. Again.

Pune City’s principal owners, the Rajesh Wadhawan Group, decided not to continue due to a financial crisis arising from the group’s primary business. Pune will be replaced by Hyderabad FC, a new entity under new owners.

The closure of Delhi Dynamos is being softly called “rebranding” since the club’s owners haven’t changed. A lucrative offer from the Odisha government has led the owners to cut their losses in Delhi and shift their base. It will now be called ‘Odisha FC’ and be based out of Bhubaneswar, the equivalent of English club Arsenal moving from London to Lisbon.

Anybody who is even vaguely familiar with the dynamics of Indian football knew that this was inevitable. And knows that there are more clubs to follow.

Identities of ISL’s founding clubs reeked of marketeers trying to pedal their flawed idea of ‘spreading the game’– by simply planting a club in every corner of the country. It was clear then that ISL was the brainchild of suits in boardrooms, and not people of football. Knowledge and wisdom, the do’s and don’ts, gained from the past decades were ignored.

No person of football could have justified fielding new clubs from Delhi, Mumbai or Pune, cities with little to no appetite for the sport. Even an entity like Pune FC, considered the most professionally run club in the early 2010s, could attract only a few thousand spectators before disbanding its senior team in 2015. Worse still, the new clubs would sideline the likes of Shillong Lajong and Imphal-based NEROCA, clubs that are rooted in their local communities.

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No person of football could also rationalise merging the entire north-east under one basic umbrella. It is a football hotbed with diverse identities and rivalries with a huge ecosystem of its own. Still, NorthEast United FC (NEUFC) was created.

Unsurprisingly, NEUFC has struggled to form an identity or a connect with fans; as low as 1,121 of whom attended one home match in Guwahati in 2018. Fans had also dissented against the poor running of the club last year; their anger reaching a tipping point when the club did not post a single social media update for a few months.

Lastly, a new club from Kolkata, a city full of clubs that span generations, ATK, formerly known as Atletico de Kolkata, had the impossible task of creating a fanbase in this city. It averaged an impressive 45,000-plus spectators when the two leagues did not overlap (ISL ran from October to December, I-League from January to April).

But when the leagues ran simultaneously in the last two years and fans were faced with a choice, ATK’s turnout dropped to just over 17,000 and 12,000 spectators respectively. There have been some talks around the club merging with Mohun Bagan, which could be a necessary solution to what was a bad idea in the first place.

Of course, there are aspects of ISL which are admirable. It has revived football in Kerala, Chennai and Jamshedpur and revitalised the game in Goa. ISL has got broadcaster Star India, with its nationwide TV and digital reach, to care about the domestic game and even invest in it – which is why it is a good TV product and can claim to have popularised the sport.

It has also amassed a large number of fans, the majority of whom have been introduced to the domestic game through ISL and thus have no empathy for older clubs – whose voices are now in the minority. You cannot blame ISL fans either. They have been shielded from the game’s realities and are only now seeing their clubs face the same issues they had ridiculed older clubs for – such as half-empty stadiums, uncertainty over venues, unpaid salaries and even contract breaches.

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They are also influenced by ISL’s media posturing. For instance, six months before the club shut down, Pune City’s CEO had declared that the club “will still be there in the ISL next year – 100%”. And five months before Delhi moved its base, the club’s director openly ridiculed a Times of India journalist for publishing news on the possibility of the club shifting to Odisha.

ISL operates in an unapologetic and unabashed manner. It continued with references to the ‘Maha Derby’, played between Maharashtra clubs Mumbai City and Pune City, even when Pune was almost dead.

It has also convinced a large audience that ISL is the reason behind India’s jump from 171 to around 100 in the global rankings, even though for four years it did not pause for national team matches (all leagues globally halt for designated “international breaks” to free up players for their countries).

In reality, ISL and its influence made it tougher for India to schedule matches and for players to prioritise the national team, as revealed by Stephen Constantine, the national team coach at the time. India jumped in the rankings because a couple of AIFF officials decided to cleverly game the system.

ISL has had a near-monopoly in resources over the last five years. It has had primetime TV and digital coverage, with all matches kicking off between 7 to 8 PM. It has been aggressive on advertising with regular celebrity endorsements. And it has had a closed league system to protect the investments of the club owners.

Despite all of this, the league is now facing problems familiar to the game. It could have joined hands with India’s ‘legacy’ clubs, leveraged their strengths and planted the seeds for a more inclusive future. But it was too busy throwing stones at these clubs. It approached Indian football with a heavy hand and an unfounded sense of superiority. And now, it seems busy trying to control the narrative.

Surely, India’s national league clubs did not die for this?

Akarsh Sharma is a Delhi-based writer who contributes to various publications. He tweets @Akarsh_Official.