ISL vs I-League: Behind culture clash, signs of mutual benefit

The season that awaits Indian football, with the ISL and the I-League held concurrently, is expected to give the sport a new direction from the jungle of contradictions that AIFF had grown around itself, with two national leagues that looked and felt different. The 2017-18 Indian football season is to be the rumble in the jungle.

The ISL's existence of celebrity-fronted franchises without genuine community engagement required reinvention. Now that the ISL is a four-month-long league featuring ten teams, it is obvious the "yehdeewollyfootballwolly" (feat. Alessandro del Piero's memorable Hindi line in the early season promos) days are gone. The I-League, where the nuts and bolts of the Indian game was played out with far less attention and fanfare, has been given a shake-up that will ensure that the toughest and most organised among it can survive.

But maybe there is a middle ground. The AIFF-ISL top-down approach may have been flung into the I-League's face, but is it possible that the entire exercise can work if it is closely tied into bottom-up functioning of committed clubs around the country?

There are some signs of life that this is happening. North East United FC (NEUFC) particularly have spent the last six months moving actively across the region. The club's head of partnerships and grassroots Vikram Philip Rajkumar, says the club, "understands what community clubs have given and the sacrifices they have made and that they have a better understanding of the region." They have established pre-season partnerships with Shillong United (ex-Royal Wahingdoh) and on December 2, the first NEUFC teams will compete in the under-15 and under-18 I-League competitions. Rajkumar says, "This year is about us moving from being a franchise to being a football club."

A league spanning five months has meant that the NEUFC office will be based in Guwahati (and not, as previously, Mumbai). On October 22, they played NEROCA in an exhibition match in Manipur and won 2-0. Over the last five months leading up to the ISL, club officials traveled through 12-14 districts in Manipur, Mizoram, Assam and Meghalaya to scout for talent to bring into their junior programmes.

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Coach João Carlos Pires de Deus turned up two months before the start of the season to hold coaching seminars in Shillong; three months ago, fitness coach Mauro Martins had travelled through various parts of the region with officials on scouting and youth missions. The AFC criteria may definitely be a factor in the push, even though ISL clubs are required to put things in place next year. NEUFC are in early because, Rajkumar says, "We want to do something right not just to tick boxes."

Like NEUFC, FC Pune City (FCPC) announced its 'strategic alliance' with Mizoram Premier League's (MPL) Chanmari FC, for two years, earlier this year. So far, Chanmari have played a pre-season against Pune City and two of the Chanmari players have been signed on a trial with their reserve team and two Pune City players are on loan to Chanmari during the MPL season.

Chanmari's secretary Andrew Lalremkima says the give-and-take agreement works well. "For a small club like Chanmari big clubs being interested in us benefits us. It makes young players trust us because what they see is a future for them when they join our club. Such arrangements will sustain our club in the long run," he says.

A few months ago, Pune City's CEO Gaurav Modwel told ESPN: "We are well and truly capable of being called a proper football club now" and says the club is considering fielding a team in the I-League's 2nd division. "That would truly make us a team across both ISL and I-League."

Delhi Dynamos have tied in with the Doha-based Aspire Academy. The academy said a Dynamos spokesperson has provided two coaches who will monitor programmes from the reserve to the under-13s and devise both, a training curriculum and a uniform methodology for all age-group teams. Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC already have their youth academies. The rest will come through soon enough because they have to.

Feeder clubs are hardly a new idea, but Indian football is hardly new age, even in 2017. Like Dominic Sutnga, owner of Royal Wahingdoh who told ESPN earlier this year, "Not everybody can be a Chelsea or a Man United, we understand that, but we don't mind being a smaller Leicester City club or a second division club that provides and feeds. But find us a slot where we feel that we can do justice - what is my budget, how can I optimise how I run things, you have to find us that slot. Now what we have is all over the place. Find us a slot and the revenue model of sustainability should be there." That revenue model has been found by Sutnga.

For clubs of greater ambition, this merger-not-merger scenario will also measure if they can adapt to an ecosystem in flux that demands professionalism and sustainability. Shillong Lajong appear to be one of those who have stepped up. Lead bidders for the north-east franchise and part owners of North East United for a season, Lajong, have acquired 31 acres of land outside Shillong to set up a centre of excellence. Owner Larsing Ming Sawyan says it should be ready by 2020.

In the latest ISL draft, the club earned sizable transfer fees for seven players, with some reports pinning it at Rs.1.46 crore. This is a club that has played a greater number of under-23 players in its eleven than the minimum of two, which are required as starters by the I-League. Lajong's focus on youth is now paying out its benefits - in revenue and future sustainability.

Larsing says, "Our objectives are to play in the highest league in the country and we believe the structure will evolve and be in place in the next one to three years." The year 2020 has a nice rounded ring to it, which is when, Larsing says, "we foresee a stable structure coming into existence ... and the moment that happens we are going to see more stable big-time owners and institutions getting involved." For Lajong to be in the right place at that time, "we have to strengthen our own foundations - invest in youth, infrastructure, sustainability - if we have to rise to the level that the league system will to go."

Is it possible that Indian football could have such a functioning and living planet? With Indian football, holding your breath is usually not advised, but what else can you do?