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How the playoffs format of the ISL became a talking point

Gurpreet Sandhu and Miku express their disappointment at losing against Chennaiyin in the ISL final.
 

The Indian Super League (ISL) final saw Chennaiyin FC trump Bengaluru FC (BFC) 3-2 at their home in a dramatic final, one that saw the regular season table-toppers fail to win the league title for the fourth consecutive time.

BFC had finished the season with 40 points, eight ahead of second-placed Chennaiyin, and the post-match presentation had both BFC captain Sunil Chhetri and goalkeeper Gurpreet Sandhu allude to their disappointment at having "won the league" but lost the final. Sandhu even said, "We are the champions," a statement that Chennaiyin's victorious coach John Gregory would later say he was "disappointed" to have heard.

So how did this playoff become a matter of discussion, and what are ways in which this could be changed?

Where else do football leagues have playoffs?

This is perhaps the first key question, because the playoffs are not common in international football, where a league typically  comprises an equal number of matches for all the contestants.

Australia, U.S., Mexico, Colombia and Belgium all have playoffs, but typically the reasons for having them are two-fold -- either to compensate for the low number of teams participating with a greater number of matches for them -- such as the A-League, which has 10 teams like ISL -- or the geographical distances that make for conferences like in Major League Soccer (MLS).

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu after the loss in the final said he felt like they lost just a game, but not the league.

The key difference with ISL is that, in the foreign leagues, the regular season table-toppers in each case have some tangible rewards. The league toppers in U.S. and Mexico earn the right to play the CONCACAF Champions League, while A-League rewards both the regular season toppers and the finals champions with one AFC Champions League spot apiece. In Belgium, the top six teams after the regular season move up to fight for the championship and two places for UEFA Champions League places, while the teams between seven and 14 in the 16-team league all advance to a playoff for the Europa League.

There is no such second shot at the ISL, with the winners only assured of an AFC Cup playoff slot, reserved previously for the Federation Cup champions and currently in use by BFC during their ongoing AFC Cup campaign. Gregory mentioned at his post-match conference on Saturday that he didn't know till after he had won that this directly qualifies them for AFC competition next year.

What could be the reasons for ISL to have playoffs?

A study done about a decade ago for the All India Football Federation (AIFF), of which this writer was a part of, had concluded that Indian audiences are not geared to the concept of a league. Call it a hangover from years of having followed either cricket, or individual sports where there have been moments of sporadic success -- there's a sense of unfinished business in the sports fan's mind unless there is a final to relate to.

Every league in India since the advent of the Indian Cricket League (ICL) and the Indian Premier League (IPL) in cricket have run on similar lines, with playoffs to determine the winner. This has seen results similar to the one in ISL in hockey, where Delhi Waveriders were dominant in the league stages of the inaugural Hockey India League (HIL) but lost in the final to the Ranchi franchise.

To underscore the fact that in most cases, these leagues have been tournaments with no tangible value outside of the tournament duration. Saturday's result means Chennaiyin FC will start as India's representatives in the AFC Cup of 2019 despite not having topped the league table in the regular season of the ISL.

Surely BFC knew what they were signing up for when they joined, right?

This is a valid argument, and that's what made the post-match comments of Chhetri and Sandhu sound churlish, even if they were borne purely out of disappointment from a bad day at the office. It was a close margin of defeat, and there were some refereeing decisions that went against them on the night, but the fact was that all goals were scored fair and square.

Gregory defended the format, calling it a "big success", but his comparing it with the Championship in England was disingenuous. Gregory talked of how teams could finish sixth in the English second division, "20 points behind the champion" and still qualify for the Premiership. The analogy doesn't fly, simply because the league champion and runners-up earn the right to be promoted ahead of the next four teams in the playoffs.

So what could change?

One solution would be to do away with playoffs, or at least introduce some kind of reward for finishing the league season as toppers.

Some alternatives could be in emulating the IPL and allowing the table topper a passage through to the final, and letting teams from second to fifth to battle for one place against them. Another idea, that was mooted at the press conference, was of introducing a home-and-away leg or a best-of-three for the finals.

The biggest talking point from the final's outcome, is that the regular season table-toppers have no tangible rewards.
The biggest talking point from the final's outcome, is that the regular season table-toppers have no tangible rewards.

If AIFF can use their heft and get India an additional AFC slot, perhaps one slot from the league stages could be booked for the champions, and then the final would be a logical conclusion to the season, one that both teams could approach without any fear of failure, with the winner taking the second slot from the ISL. ESPN reached out to both AIFF and their marketing partners IMG-Reliance asking if the playoffs format could be revisited in future, but both declined to comment on it.

To be fair to the ISL, they have not been averse to course-corrections in their short lifespan, having introduced the away goals rule in playoffs for the first time in the fourth season. Maybe the debate about the playoffs system will also see some creative solutions in the immediate future.

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