Over the past month or so, one conversation has garnered more interest than any other in the Indian football circuit and it is the possibility of watching a merged league as early as the next season.
The merger had been suggested more than a year ago but was met with severe opposition from I-League clubs. However, it seems that IMG R has managed to sell the idea, if not to everyone then at least to the big three that is East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC.
Despite AIFF president Prafulla Patel openly proclaiming back in January that the merger between the Indian Super League and the I-League won’t happen at least till 2018, it seems there has been some serious lobbying on Reliance’s end since then.
The story, which was initially leaked by leading Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika has since then been backed by Scoopwhoop, states that several sources inside Indian football’s governing body have confirmed that the vision will soon be a reality and that there have been several meetings between Mrs. Nita Ambani, the chairperson and various club officials in Mumbai.
Interestingly, if the merger does go ahead as scheduled, the AIFF and IMG R will have several big problems to solve, a few of which are listed below:
#1 What happens to the other clubs?
According to the proposals, the merger will see ISL emerge as the first division league in the country with the eight franchises and the three I-League clubs. This, however, leaves the other I-League clubs, including this season’s surprise packages Aizawl FC in a state of limbo as they will have to play in the second division for a minimum of three years, during which there will be no promotion or relegation.
It is hard to believe that the other outfits will not demand an alteration to this rule.
#2 What happens to the players?
A lot of the ISL franchises sign players from East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC, so it will be interesting to see how the players will be distributed if the merged league develops.
The likes of Sunil Chettri, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Cameron Watson, Willis Plaza, Arnab Mondal, Narayan Das, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Sony Norde and others will be hot property in the transfer market, and the ISL franchises can easily outmuscle the traditional supporter-backed clubs when it comes to financial clout.
Last season, Atletico de Kolkata had seven players from the two Bengal giants, but how will the footballers choose their colors now?
#3 The fan base will be divided
This will be a major problem, specifically for Atletico de Kolkata. The two-time ISL champions already had a hard time drawing sizeable crowds during their triumph last season, and it will only get tougher if the Red and Gold Brigade and the Mariners feature in the same competition.
The Kolkata derby is one of the most passionate games in world football, and it is hard to believe that a 3-year-old part-time footballing franchise will be able to prise away fans who have been supporting East Bengal or Mohun Bagan for generations now.
Mr. Sanjiv Goenka, ATK’s principal owner is well aware of the predicament his side could face in case such a situation arises, and that is probably why he objected to the merger in the first place as well.
#4 Which club will represent which city?
This is again another problem that concerns the City of Joy specifically. According to the contract penned down by the franchises, one city can have only one club playing in the ISL.
Calcutta already have Atletico de Kolkata, so where will Mohun Bagan and East Bengal fit in and what will be their home stadiums? Some have suggested that Mohun Bagan can play at the Howrah stadium and represent the city of Howrah, while East Bengal can make Kalyani their home base and the Kalyani Stadium will be their home ground.
It remains to be seen, however, whether these stadiums match the standards set by the ISL Technical Committee who need to approve of the same.
#5 Will FIFA approve the new structure?
Even if somehow the IMG R manages to convince all the participating clubs, will they be able to do the same to FIFA? The restructuring will basically mean the AIFF surrendering an entire sport to the whims of a corporate, who can make and bend rules as per their desire.
The I-League, which is run exclusively by the AIFF is a FIFA-recognised league but the ISL is not. However, to make the ISL the top-tier competition in the country, IMG R will require FIFA’s ratification at any cost.
It seems that Reliance Industries are desperate to do whatever it takes to ensure their monopoly in the Indian footballing scenario, but it remains to be seen whether the world body approves of the same or not.