What the quest for 'one league' means for Aizawl... and others

With talks of a restructured domestic football structure swirling ever since the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and their commercial and marketing partners IMG-Reliance (IMG-R) suggested a three-tiered domestic football structure almost exactly a year ago, is there a chance that Sunday's gripping finale to the I-League may have been the last such title chase ever?

More pertinently, champions Aizawl FC have not been a part of the discussions for the proposed top division yet. That means Aizawl could be competing in the AFC Champions League preliminary round in January 2018 at the same time as being part of a closed second division in Indian football, where the guarantee of promotion is unlikely to be a feature for the first seven years.

"The presentation for the one league was made last May, and the fact that we haven't come up with a concrete plan yet means there are some areas of concern that are being looked at," says I-League CEO Sunando Dhar. "The idea is to have one common league for Indian football, which will then make it easier to schedule fixtures for the national team and it will be also be a more reasonable schedule for the players. I think it is too early to say if this is the last I-League."

From chaos to high drama

It began with a cloud of uncertainty over the future of the structure of the I-League, but if this turns out to be the last of its kind Indian football fans will cherish the memory of a league that Minerva Punjab owner Ranjit Bajaj calls "one of the most competitive" ever. Dhar rates it at par with the 2015 photo finish between Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC, but feels a team like Aizawl winning "just added to the romance" of the season.

Following AIFF's restructuring plans, a number of clubs had made their displeasure known, and teams like Sporting Clube de Goa, Salgaocar and Dempo had given a number of indications that they would not compete in a league that could soon become a closed second division, and that is what pains Bajaj in terms of how late his club and fellow-debutants Chennai City FC were brought in. "If this had been a local tournament, I wouldn't have allowed my team to take part in it," says Bajaj of his team's maiden run in the top flight, where they finished ninth. "This really was a topsy-turvy league where honestly there was never a guarantee of a top team having it easy against a team from the bottom half."

Indeed, every team won or lost at least one game for the entire season, and all 10 teams managed at least one win on the road. Only Aizawl and Mohun Bagan were able to maintain an unbeaten home record in a season where, more by default than by design, Indian football saw nine different centres for the teams.

Restructuring possibilities

There are several theories doing the rounds about the domestic football structure for the 2017-18 season. The only thing that can be said with any certainty at this stage that it will kick in only after the conclusion of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup that plays out all of October across six cities.

One of the likely scenarios is that Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, the two oldest clubs in India's top-flight, will join Bengaluru FC -- I-League champions in 2014 and 2016 -- in an expanded version of the Indian Super League (ISL) alongside the existing eight franchises. There are additional reports of an established industrial house, which had an active football team based in Mumbai till about three decades ago and has produced a number of quality footballers through its youth system, showing an inclination to field a team in the new top division, with their choice of home venue undecided as of now.

Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are reportedly willing to be a part of the new league, provided AIFF agrees to a set of their conditions, and are likely to meet AIFF president Praful Patel sometime later this week to discuss the same. ISL's stakeholders are reportedly willing to go ahead without the Kolkata clubs, especially if the proposal with the industrial house comes through, as the latter would be willing to pay the franchise fee of Rs 15 crore.

The north-east question

To many the eventual title triumph of Aizawl may have come as a surprise, but the process of it was long in the making. States such as Manipur, Meghalaya, Sikkim and Mizoram have taken the lead in recent years in developing players at the youth level, and while their supply line of young players has seen numerous other clubs benefit, it is only in the last decade that teams such as Shillong Lajong, United Sikkim, Rangdajied United, Royal Wahingdoh and now Aizawl FC have given players from the region a platform to showcase their talent in the top division for their fans locally.

"Obviously, the performances of Aizawl and Lajong [who recorded their best-ever finish of fifth this season] show the importance of investment in youth," says Dhar. "It helps in working with a manageable budget, it helps in growing footballers from a region, and consequently helps in community growth and greater fan engagement. The club benefits from the fact that a lot of these players have been playing together and gelling well as a unit from a young age."

Dhar refuses to go into comparison with the ISL team NorthEast United, who have gradually moved away from a conscious attempt in their first season to field a predominantly north-eastern contingent among the five starting Indian players mandated by ISL rules, but are yet to crack the code, having missed out on the top four in all three seasons of the ISL. Interestingly, the other club to have missed out each year is FC Pune City, the only ISL club to field a team in the Under-18 I-League at present, though that could be because they bought over the academy of the erstwhile I-League side Pune FC in 2016.

"It's a perfect model for every club to work with -- you must give priority to youth and grassroots programmes so that you can have your own players playing at the highest level," says Dhar, cracking the code for Aizawl's success this year.

Big decisions ahead

Dhar explains that while any team aspiring to play in the top division of an AFC nation must fulfil all of their licensing criteria -- indicating that ISL franchises might have to re-orient themselves to commit to playing in a potential top division -- the restriction of four foreigners only applies to clubs normally when they play AFC competition. "Licensing doesn't extend to playing conditions within the league," he says. "Obviously, when a club plays in AFC's top competitions, they have to fulfil the requirement of three foreign players and one AFC player, but AFC have given special permission to leagues in China and Australia in the past to field more foreign players in the starting eleven. So that is the least of the concerns at this stage."

Other influential voices in Indian football, such as former captain Bhaichung Bhutia and Lajong owner Larsing Ming Sawyan, have also backed a longer, tiered structure in Indian football. "Development is a relative term," Larsing, who is also a vice-president of the AIFF and now chairs their development committee, told Hindustan Times earlier this week. "Look at what is happening in football in China. If you are moving at 15km per hour after having averaged 5km per hour for long and the world is travelling at 60kmph, would you call that development?"

Indeed, the activity around Indian football at the moment is frenetic enough to dispel any notion that the 'sleeping giant' that India is often accused of being continues to lie in deep slumber. The only part that seems difficult to predict is whether the next move will be one that gives an equal opportunity to all stakeholders or stays ransom to the interests of a select few.