Last Saturday, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) reiterated that the Indian Super League (ISL) will have promotion and relegation from 2024-25, as part of their roadmap for domestic football. While that would open up the opportunity for I-League clubs to get promoted to the top division, there remain big question marks over their immediate future. The departure of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, shrinking revenues and continuing struggles to find broadcasters and sponsors, are just some of their primary challenges.
So what lies ahead for the I-league clubs, players and fans? We spoke to Sandeep Chattoo (owner, Real Kashmir FC), Robert Royte (owner, Aizawl FC), VC Praveen (President, Gokulam Kerala FC), and Rohit Ramesh (owner, Chennai City FC) to find out.
Reluctance on the roadmap
"When we met in Kuala Lumpur (last year) along with all the I-league owners, AFC had promised us this (promotion/relegation in the ISL) as well. The AIFF secretary and other ISL owners were there, but I-League seniors have always told me to never take this for granted. We have to wait and see," says Praveen.
Over the years, the I-League has steadily lost ground to the ISL since the latter's inception in 2013. The ISL receives superior TV coverage, has deeper pockets to pick up the best talent around and more AFC competition slots (2 against 1).
Other I-League owners also share this lack of trust, and for now, 'wait and watch' seems to be the approach.
"We haven't got anything official. I see it as speculations, etc.," says Ramesh.
Will EB and MB be missed?
Chattoo acknowledges the role played by two of the highest profile clubs in Indian football history. "Personally, it is a big loss for Real Kashmir because the competition with those clubs was special. These clubs had a history of over a hundred and fifty years between them. Beating Mohun Bagan and drawing with East Bengal was an entirely different feeling," he says.
The absence of the legacy clubs will also lower the profile of the I-League, making it even harder for I-League teams to approach sponsors and increase their financial burden.
"Since the majority of support is being given to the ISL by the AIFF when it comes to TV coverage and other benefits, the rest of the teams have been suffering. The absence of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan will only add to it. It makes a difference for us," says Royte.
On the field, though, Praveen maintains there will not be much of a change. "The league does not lose any of its competitiveness. Most of the teams are on equal footing," he says, citing examples of how teams have beaten the two big Kolkata clubs regularly these past few years.
Club owners add that while sponsors were always hard to find, the situation is even tougher this year. "At Real Kashmir, the state government allowed us to use the Polo Ground stadium for three years, while J&K Bank supported us somewhat at the start. But I put in the rest of the money. This year we were expecting more sponsors to cover up the previous years' losses but given the circumstances and the overall situation with the economy, we aren't expecting much," says Chattoo.
Everyone is preparing for a lower budget, even though costs will be lower this year because the league is set to be conducted in one city (Kolkata) within a controlled environment due to COVID-19.
"Our budget is [usually] about INR 7 crores. It will be lower this time because it looks like the league will be conducted in one city. The AIFF has promised to take care of the boarding and related expenses, and as long as the coach and the team are satisfied with the accommodation and the nutritional aspects of the food, it should be okay," says Praveen.
Another aspect that will bring down costs this is year is the league reducing the cap on foreign players from six to four (three non-Asians + one Asian foreigner) in the playing XI.
"I think teams can save about 1 to 1.5 crores in expenses this year. This doesn't seem like much when you consider the total amount but most teams know that unless they have some sort of corporate backing like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, it's simply not possible to make money," says Chattoo.
"I'm going to request the government to support us more. It's not possible for an individual to run a club of this magnitude. I'm doing it this year and I'll do it next year as well. It's the passion that's driving me but it isn't realistic," he says.
With not a lot of payoff in terms of exposure and prestige, heavy investment in squad building is not on the plate. "I think we will surely be cost effective in this regard," says Ramesh. "Our budget for the whole season ends up being more than the prize money which we will get if we win the league. So personally, it doesn't makes sense [to have a high budget]. [Our] objective is to be prudent in terms of spending and form a good squad to compete.
"I foresee transfer revenues as the only income clubs can get at the moment. Upcoming years should be more or less like last season. But, if the federation can help us out, there can be scenarios where costs can come down. But once again, it's wishful thinking," adds Ramesh.
What's the ultimate prize?
For Royte, there is great pride at stake. He says the Aizawl squad will be almost entirely composed of his academy players. "We will have four foreigners but most of the remainder will be players from our own academy. Nearly all of them will be under 20. The departure of a good number of players to the ISL will not cause any big loss because there are always new graduates coming up. We are hoping that an all Mizo team will do something in the I-League. It will be a magical season," says Royte.
Chattoo too insists he isn't playing for money. "The motivation for me, since I'm running the club on my own, is the love and support we get back home. Right now, there are six-seven leagues in Srinagar. Every locality has its own club. I get messages every day that some tournament or the other is happening. What they look up to isn't the ISL, but Real Kashmir FC. That's what they aspire to," he says.
Even though the bid to slash costs suggests otherwise, clubs maintain there is relevance in the I-League beyond that of a second division league. "While there is a difference in the telecast and the support given to the two leagues, on the field, there isn't a lot of difference in the quality of the two leagues. Entry to the I-League is based on merit as per FIFA norms and guidelines," says Royte.
The AFC Cup slot available to the I-League winners is another motivating factor. "We want to represent the country in AFC competition. So that itself is a motivation to go for the championship," says Praveen.
But even while they state its importance, clubs harbour hopes of playing in the ISL. "I have to take the club to ISL, no matter what. But it isn't just the Kashmir factor that will do it. We have to prove ourselves. This year is a litmus test for us. If East Bengal and Mohun Bagan are not there, it puts extra pressure on us to finish in the top," says Chattoo.
"We have heard that there will be promotion to the ISL in 2023. We are willing to wait for that," says Royte.