The Sports Law & Policy Centre | The Need to Re-Structure Indian Football
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The Need to Re-Structure Indian Football

Introduction

2017 was perhaps the most significant year[1] in recent Indian football history. The FIFA U-17 World Cup was generally considered to be a success, the Indian national team qualified for the 2019 Asian Football Confederation (“AFC”) Asian Cup for the first time since 2011 and the fourth edition of the Hero Indian Super League (“ISL”) was for the first time recognised as a league by the AFC, therefore concluding its longest and arguably most successful season yet.

However, 2017 also saw the All India Football Federation (“AIFF”) attempting to restructure the affairs of Indian club football – given that the two leagues, the Hero I-League (“I-League”) and ISL operated separately resulting in a rather disjointed and unharmonised system.

It is against this backdrop, that the AFC commissioned an inquiry into the state of affairs of Indian club football culminating in a 17-page report[2] issued in April 2018; recommending action to be taken by the AIFF to achieve its objective of developing the sport.

While the report has not been made available in the public domain, it is considered to be the definitive roadmap that the AIFF ought to follow to ensure the progress and continuity of Indian football. This piece seeks to discuss the current state of Indian football and particularly, the way forward, in light of the AFC report.

Current state of affairs: a parallel universe

Pre-2017/18 season:

Historically, the premier league or first division in India has operated as what is now called the I-League (and the erstwhile National Football League). The I-League operates on a system of promotion and relegation with the I-League 2nd Division (“2nd Division”), a step below the I-League in the Indian football hierarchy.

This ‘open’ model, generally adopted by most domestic football leagues globally, operates in accordance with Article 9.1 of the Regulations Governing the Application of the FIFA Statutes (“FIFA Statutes Regulations”) which addresses the principle of promotion and relegation. It states that:

“A club’s entitlement to take part in a domestic league championship shall depend principally on sporting merit. A club shall qualify for a domestic league championship by remaining in a certain division or by being promoted or relegated to another at the end of a season”.[3]

The Asian Football Confederation has adopted an identical provision through Article 7.1 of its statutes.[4]

2014 witnessed the inaugural season of the ISL, a league which was operated as a joint venture between IMG-Reliance (“IMGR”) and Star India Private Limited (“Star”).

The ISL adopted an alternative approach, operating on a franchise model with celebrities and industrialists investing in 8 (now 10) franchise teams based in different cities across the country. Indeed, this ‘closed’ model means that the same teams compete against each other every season, regardless of their performance during the previous season, or as FIFA terms it, “sporting merit”. However, the FIFA Statutes Regulations also provide that “a club’s participation in a domestic league championship may be subject to other criteria within the scope of the licensing procedure, whereby the emphasis is on sporting, infrastructural, administrative, legal and financial considerations”[5].

This closed system was further secured by a 10-year “non-relegation clause” negotiated between franchise teams and the ISL, meaning that the only way in which a club could be added to the ISL roster was through an open tender.

Therefore, for the first time in Indian football, and as opposed to domestic football structures globally, the ISL and I-League effectively operated separately, each as India’s ‘premier league’.

While the ISL stole the spotlight in terms of investment, commercialisation, television coverage and attracting foreign talent, FIFA was quick to stress the primacy of the I-League, when former general secretary Jerome Valcke refused to recognise the ISL as a league, stating that for FIFA, the only league was the I-League.[6] This sentiment was echoed by the AIFF President Praful Patel who regarded the ISL as a “short-term booster”. This meant that teams from the ISL could not compete at Asian club competitions such as the AFC Champions League or AFC Cup.

2017/18 season and beyond:

In 2016, representatives from the ISL, I-League and AIFF discussed the potential re-structuring of Indian football, with the ISL becoming the first division, and the I-League and 2nd division operating as the new 2nd and 3rd divisions of Indian football respectively.

However, during a meeting in 2017, this time with the AFC, the AFC was “against a privately managed tournament undermining the top division league”.[7] Following this, the AIFF proposed that the two leagues run simultaneously with the I-League winners eligible to participate in the AFC Champions League qualifiers and the ISL winners eligible for an AFC Cup qualifying slot.

Although considered to be a short-term measure, the current arrangement effectively places the I-League above the ISL as the AFC Champions League is considered to be the more prestigious competition.

Proposed change – AFC Report: key takeaways

As part of their mandate of improving the standard of domestic football across all AFC jurisdictions, a committee steered by Alex Phillips (Head of Asia-Europe Affairs, AFC, seconded to AFC from UEFA) and Nic Coward (Professional Football Consultant, FIFA) published a report titled, “The Sustainable Development of Top Level Indian Club Football – A Road Map” (“Report”). As the title suggests, the Report comprises a set of recommendations the AIFF ought to adopt in order to streamline and develop Indian club football.

Parts of the report were reportedly leaked to the public and competently summarised by ‘The Fan Garage’,[8] a Indian sports website. Key takeaways of the report have been summarised as follows:

1. Open, three-tier structure:

Indian football would migrate towards a three-tier open structure with promotion and relegation between each tier. The ISL would be the top league and the I-League and 2nd Division would form the new 2nd and 3rd divisions respectively.

To achieve this, the Report suggests a two-step plan.

Step 1: ISL to expand from 10 to 16 teams starting from 2019-20, by adding two teams each season. This may be achieved through two routes:

  • (a) One team added through the ‘sporting pathway’ i.e. promotion from the I-League and another through financial investment, i.e. through an open tender process as is the case with the current crop of ISL teams; or
  • (b) Two teams promoted to the ISL from the I-League – i.e. based on sporting merit.

Step 2: Once the ISL is complete with 16 teams in total, a system of promotion from and relegation to the I-League would commence (at the end of the 2021-22 season). This would be a “two up/two down” approach, meaning the top two from the I-League would achieve promotion and the bottom two ISL teams each season would be relegated to the I-League.

However, this arrangement throws up three potential issues.

First, the I-League clubs who were earlier considered to be ‘first-division’, will collectively form the de facto second division of Indian football. Moreover, they will not have the opportunity to play in the ISL until 2022; when the promotion-relegation system is likely to be implemented.

Secondly, implementing an open system of promotion and relegation from the 2022-23 season onwards would result in a breach of the “10-year-no-relegation clause” which the current ISL teams stand to benefit from.

Third, it is part of the IMGR business model to charge teams participating in the ISL a premium ‘franchise fee’. However, when I-League clubs are promoted to the ISL it is unlikely that they will be in a position to afford such fees themselves. In fact, the report suggests that “there should be a different fee for promoted clubs from the I-League/Tier 2 as opposed to any entering through an open tender”.

It remains to be seen how IMG-R would address this issue, cognisant of the best interests of football across all three leagues.

2. League transition commission:

The Report rightly addresses the need for the transition towards a unified league to be supervised by an independent ‘League Transition Commission’, led by representatives from FIFA and AFC in order to ensure compliance with their respective statutes and regulations.

3. ISL primacy and inconsistent AIFF stance:

The drafters of the Report contend that it was always the intention of the AIFF to grant primacy to the ISL, to the detriment of the I-League. This was substantiated through the 2010 Master Rights Agreement (“MRA”) originally between the AIFF and IMGR, wherein it was stated that the ISL was to be the “the most senior and prestigious football league in India”, as a result of which, the I-League may “be reconstituted, replaced and/or discontinued (temporarily or permanently)”.

However, the terms of the MRA are in clear contradiction with the AIFF’s publicly-adopted position – where (as stated above) it endorsed the primacy of the I-League and saw the benefits of the ISL as merely short term.

4. Streamlining player registration:

Without expressly making a reference to it, the Report probably had the case of the player Abinash Ruidas in                  mind when it suggested that the AIFF ought to establish a uniform player registration and transfer system across the board.

As explained in this excellent article by Nation of Sport[9], the fascinating case of Ruidas involved a contractual dispute between a young player and his club, Kingfisher East Bengal (“KEB”), who allegedly forged his signature to assert the player’s contractual obligations towards the club. In addition, KEB relied on an archaic ‘token system’ to prove that they rightfully held the registration of the player.

Pursuant to the statutes of the West Bengal football association (a state association, subordinate to the AIFF), a physical token is considered to conclusive proof of a player’s registration with a club. So long as the club is in possession of the token, the player is contractually bound to play for that club. And while the AIFF, in Ruidas’ case declared the token system to be “outdated and of no value”, the Report seems to have identified this bizarre discrepancy between the systems, which ought to be streamlined.

Among other issues, the Report also applauded the role played by IMGR in developing Indian football, addressed the need for a more robust player’s association and encouraged the revival of the state football associations.

Conclusion

It remains to be seen how the AIFF will act to set the AFC’s recommendations into motion. However, with the threat of sanctions in the form of an Asia-wide ban on Indian clubs, the Report is perhaps the wake-up call Indian football needs.

If one thing is clear, it is that a vast majority of stakeholders in Indian football are in favour of a unified league. This was specifically emphasised in the Report:

“We were impressed by the level of commonly held views amongst those we met.  There was near-unanimity on the central issue of there having to be one national league system, with promotion and relegation links, as opposed to the concurrent leagues which exist today.”

Indeed, the unification of domestic football is now more a question of “when” rather than “if”.

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[1] Shukla, K., ‘Year in review: Indian football changed perceptions in 2017, but 2018 must see more tangible growth’, FirstPost, published 30 December 2017, viewed 2 July 2018 (https://goo.gl/TxLo4n)
[2] Sarkar, D., ‘Indian clubs face ban if single football league not started from 2019-20: Fifa-backed report’, Hindustan Times, published 5 April 2018, viewed 1 July 2018 (https://goo.gl/7BdTYD)
[3] Regulations Governing the Application of the FIFA Statutes, 2016; Chapter IV – Sporting Integrity, Article 9.1 – Principle of Promotion and Relegation; page 73.
[4] Regulations Governing the Application of the AFC Statutes, 2017; Article 7.1 – Principle of Promotion and Relegation; page 53.
[5] Regulations Governing the Application of the FIFA Statutes, 2016; Chapter IV – Sporting Integrity, Article 9.2 – Principle of Promotion and Relegation; page 73.
[6] PTI, “I-League gets priority over ISL from FIFA, AIFF”, The Times of India, published on 15 October 2014, viewed on 3 July 2018 (https://goo.gl/1MdaZV).
[7] PTI, “Still no consensus on ISL, I-League merger despite high-profile meet”, The Times of India, published on 7 June 2017, viewed on 5 July 2018 (https://goo.gl/qSdLXz).
[8] Ojha, C., “REVEALED – 10 suggestions and assertions in AFC-FIFA’s I-League/ISL merger roadmap report that every Indian football fan should know”, The Fan Garage, published on 16 May 2018, viewed on 4 July 2018 (https://goo.gl/sNpNFE).
[9] Dhar, P., ‘The Curious Case of Abinash Ruidas and the Identical Signatures’, Nation of Sport, published 3 October 2017, accessed 5 October 2017 (https://goo.gl/HA6STS)