FIFA WCQ: It was never about me, it will never be about me, says Sunil Chhetri

A possible Asian Champions League group stage spot in 2021 for the Indian Super League (ISL) champions, doubts over the sustainability of the model and I-League clubs being told to find their broadcaster.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and All India Football Federation (AIFF) painted a rosy future for Indian football following a meeting in Kuala Lumpur last Monday, which can potentially change how domestic leagues are structured in the country. However, The Indian Express spoke to officials from the AIFF, I-League and ISL clubs present at the meeting, who provided an account of how it transpired.

Since they were not authorized to speak to the media about the meeting, the officials requested anonymity.

According to a representative of an ISL club, AFC secretary general Windsor John and competitions director Shin Mangil said the decision to make ISL the country’s top tier was based on ‘sporting merit, according to information provided to them by the AIFF. “The decision was based on the logic that the investment made by ISL clubs has improved infrastructure in India, their contribution has improved national team ranking apart from the fact that all national team players play in the ISL and technical aspects like superior broadcast quality, social networking, etc.,” the official said.

A few I-League clubs protested these points, but in vain.

Mangil and John presented a roadmap for Indian football, according to which the ISL will be the country’s premier division with a few I-League clubs assured a place ‘on merit’ in it in the coming years. On Sunday, the newly-anointed top tier will get underway but the ISL clubs should know that this status comes with its own poisoned chalice.

The average lifespan of a domestic league in India has been 10 to 11 years. The National Football League was launched in 1996 with grand plans. They fizzled out and the NFL had to make way in 2007 for the I-League. A decade later, wheels were set in motion for the ISL to take over as the country’s top division, which finally happened last Monday. By the time a rebranded league with promotion and relegation is launched in 2024-25, the ISL will have completed a decade and the league’s promoter Reliance Sport’s 15-year agreement with the AIFF will expire.

An I-League official said this point was raised by a few clubs, including Minerva Punjab and Mohun Bagan. “There have been so many instances where a corporate entity has entered Indian football but packed up because they were not prepared to suffer losses year after year. The AIFF and AFC were asked what if the promoters and ISL club owners lose interest by 2024-25, when the league is to be rebranded. For now, they have told all of us to be patient,” the official said.

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Sustainability, it is learnt, became the buzzword of the two-hour meeting. And not for nothing. More than a dozen I-League clubs have shut shop in the last decade. ISL franchises, too, have been in the red – reportedly suffered annual losses of around Rs 30 crore.

The losses played a huge role in two ISL franchises being forced to relocate – Delhi Dynamos have moved to Bhubaneswar and will be called Odisha FC while Pune City got new owners, who moved the club to Hyderabad. Reigning champions Bengaluru FC very nearly had to vacate their ground due to legal tussles. They, in fact, named Pune as their home venue before a court granted them some reprieve for this season.

According to an ISL club official, the clubs make Rs 13 crore on an average from the central revenue. But they pay Rs 15 crore as franchise fee each year. Globally, bulk of a club’s revenue comes from the league selling its TV rights. However, since the broadcasters – Star Sports – themselves are the league co-owners, the ISL teams do not make a paisa from TV rights.

At least the ISL has a broadcaster, which makes it possible for teams to get some sponsors. A club official, it is learnt, asked AIFF general secretary Kushal Das why the I-League fixtures have not yet been released even though it is less than a month for the season to start. The I-League is scheduled to get underway on November. Das, the official said, replied the delay has been because of broadcasting issues.

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Football Sport Development Limited (FSDL), a joint venture between ISL co-owners Reliance Sports and Star India that was established to run the ISL, takes a call on fixtures for the I-League as well. “The FSDL prepares ISL fixtures and sends it to the AIFF. With regards to the I-League, the AIFF prepares the fixtures’ list and sends it to FSDL, who consult the production team of the broadcasters and give their consent,” a source said.

Das is believed to have told the clubs that a broadcast deal has not been finalized yet. “He told us that generating advertisement revenue is a significant problem for broadcasters who telecast Indian football, which is why they haven’t cracked a deal yet,” a club official said.
With less than a month to go, the I-League clubs have been asked to chip in when it comes to searching for a broadcaster. Mohun Bagan director Debashish Dutta responded by demanding more professionalism from the AIFF and seeking an assurance from AFC secretary general Windsor John the promised roadmap will be implemented. “The AFC secretary has said a team will be formed that will monitor Indian football and ensure this is implemented,” an AIFF official said.

An ISL club official also said that John hinted at a direct spot for India in the group stage of the Asian Champions League from 2021, when AFC’s new commercial deal comes into effect. No Indian club has played in the elite club competition, failing repeated in the qualifying stages.

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