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I-League suspense far from over

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I-League suspense far from over

Mohun Bagan and East Bengal want the AIFF to provide I-League clubs an opportunity to qualify for AFC competition.
Mohun Bagan and East Bengal want the AIFF to provide I-League clubs an opportunity to qualify for AFC competition.

Exactly a week since the All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced the successful bids of Bengaluru FC and Tata Steel to operate teams in the franchise-based Indian Super League (ISL) from 2017-18, the air of uncertainty over the future of the I-League, the existing official league of India, continues.

The AIFF may have made the announcement about the expansion of the I-League, but ESPN understands they themselves are yet to finalise the exact nature of the forthcoming domestic season. This has led to media reports of clubs considering their own future within the league, and of others eager to field teams if there are more pull-outs.

The Kolkata question

Kolkata clubs Mohun Bagan and East Bengal met AIFF general secretary Kushal Das informally on Friday to clarify the stance of the sport's governing body on the coming season, especially about the likelihood of staging what is being called a super league, among the top teams of the ISL and the I-League, to determine who gets to play in AFC competitions the following year.

Das told ESPN that while there has been no official decision yet, the federation's league committee is expected to meet before the end of month, where all decisions about the 2017-18 season are likely to be taken. These would include the exact structure of the leagues, the AFC qualification criteria as well as a possible window for a super league.

The ISL clubs' conundrum

Whether or not the AFC qualification comes through for the ISL, the economics of a longer ISL season will immediately require a reboot, according to FC Pune City CEO Gaurav Modwel. With a longer league, salaries across the board might need to reworked, and there is also talk of doing away completely with the requirement of having a 'marquee' player, as was the case in the first three seasons.

"In the long term, all costs will get balanced by incomes, but in the short term all operational costs will go up, and we cannot expect the sponsorships to go up in proportion to that," says Modwel. "The trick now is in the economics of it. I just hope we can all come out stronger from this."

Bengaluru FC will need a team for the AFC Cup knockout stages before they start their ISL journey.
Bengaluru FC will need a team for the AFC Cup knockout stages before they start their ISL journey.

How will the players be distributed?

One of the key decisions which will need to be taken at the earliest possible is about how clubs will build teams for the coming season. The trickiest tightrope is for Bengaluru FC, who could be in the ISL soon but will need a team for the AFC Cup knockout stages before that.

The ISL has made its preference for a player draft clear in the past, though the exact details of that are yet to be worked out. Former players like Bhaichung Bhutia and Renedy Singh have spoken in favour of open market transfers, emphasising that players need to have the choice of picking the club they want to play with, as well as the power to negotiate their salary.

"I am personally always a proponent of the open market, but in this situation the draft is important in order to have a level-playing field," says an ISL club official. "For instance, Bengaluru might have some players they might want to hold on to, but then Tata's have no squad right now. The draft will help fix that, but we should still see to what extent. Do we put all players into the draft? Or should we have the draft for a limited number of players and put the rest into an open market?"

Future of the I-League

I-League teams are the most affected in the wake of last week's announcement, with a club official saying that new sponsorships are hugely reliant on a clearer picture of the future of the league.

"When I go to a sponsor, the first questions they ask me are which league will we be playing? When is it going to start and how long will it go? Who all will we be playing against? Who will broadcast it?" the club official says.

There have been media reports of I-League club DSK Shivajians mulling a withdrawal of their senior team from the I-League, though the club themselves have refused to comment on the matter. Bengaluru-based Ozone FC have reportedly written to the AIFF expressing an interest in being included in the I-League, almost as a direct replacement of two-time champions Bengaluru.

One I-League team official says that clubs are likely to wait for some form of official communication from the AIFF before deciding their final course of action. "We are in it for the long run but there should not be any stepmotherly treatment to the I-League," says the official. "If it ends up being an eyewash of a league, then we might as well concentrate on building our youth teams in the future. At least in that way, we are contributing in some positive way to Indian football. Otherwise, it just a lot of money down the drain.

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