Indian football is getting ready for a prolonged season with the FIFA U-17 World Cup starting on October 6. The mega project throws host India a big challenge as it has to ensure that the tournament runs smoothly. The FIFA U-17 World Cup will be followed by IMG-Reliance and the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) ambitious Indian Super League (ISL) -- a four month tournament, which will now see the inclusion of two more months. The ISL will be followed by AIFF’s overlooked tournament I-league, which still holds the tag of national football league of India. But, it was learned that the Indian Super League, which will be an eight-month tournament in 2018, will replace I-league as the national league of India and I-League will be India’s second division tournament.

AIFF, who over the years failed to portray itself as a strong association, is killing I-League to fulfill the interest of the corporate world. I-League, a faded league which failed to embrace imagination of Indian fans since its renovation in 2008, has been facing a big challenge from the ISL, which from the very beginning since 2014 has become spectators’ favourite. Now, AIFF accompanied by Reliance and IMG is in a hurry to replace the I-League with ISL because FIFA is not going to tolerate the existence of two leagues in one country.

The step received overwhelming support from the stakeholders, especially from the fans and corporate world. But, many clubs like Aizawl FC, Shillong Lajong FC, DSK Shivajians, Chennai City FC and Mumbai City FC, Churchill Brothers, who can’t afford to play in the ISL see red in AIFF’s decision, as it involves giving up their wish to make a team for I-League second division with no chance to qualify for top division. AIFF has relied on a process to allow new teams where money is important for qualification and no requirement for merit.

ISL has already seen the inclusion of two new teams - TATA Steel sponsored Jamshedpur FC and JSW Sponsored Bengaluru FC - into the tournament respectively. Bengaluru FC has played the 2016-2017 I-league but riding on popularity and money they qualified for the ISL while I-league champion Aizawl FC, a rising football team from the tiny state of Mizoram, was left with no option but to play the I-League.

AIFF even tried to bring in Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to ISL fold but both teams failed to fulfill given criteria; hence they will also have to play the I-League and have to wait to join the ISL in near future. It is clear that AIFF doesn’t care about grassroots football in India as it wants to ride on the commercial success of ISL. AIFF’s decision to replace I-League with ISL in 2018-2019 elicited strong criticism from the I-League champion Aizawl FC, who threatened fast o to death if they don’t get an opportunity to play in the top league of the country.

“Aizawl FC has submitted its formal claim to continue in the top league even after proposed merger of the existing top league with ISL,” Aizawl FC official twitter handle stated.

If Aizawl FC is denied the opportunity of playing in the top division next year, Mizoram which is a passionate football loving state and which has provided India with many talented players, will turn their back to the Indian football. The consequence will be heavy as Indian football will suffer a big loss as quality players may boycott AIFF as a mean of protest. Aizawl FC has set an example in the North East of India. AIFF instead of encouraging them is paving the path to kill the passion of a region, which lives their life on football.

AIFF’s apathy towards Indian football was exposed when the it’s secretary Kushal Das was asked about the future of I-league and Aizawl FC.

“Look, even if Aizawl FC do not play in the country’s top league, it doesn’t mean that the road ends for them. They can still play in the second division, and continue to grow their club there… So, Aizawl FC need not lose heart even if they are not part of the league.” Imagine winning a competition on a relative shoestring budget and being told to not lose heart when you are denied your place for the next season. Yes, that is going to grow the club,” AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said.

It was apparent that AIFF is in favour of popularity as it overlooked the meteoritic rise of dynamic Aizawl FC, who will play AFC Cup as the champion of India this year.

Indian football governing body failed to market football in India, who showed their love for football on many occasions. AIFF’s lack of management skills dented the spirit of Indian football. Now, it wants to ride on corporate football which is financially feasible for every stake holders in the country.

However, there is no question raised against ISL teams promise to build an academy to provide training to young aspirants in each city of India. The promise is yet to be fulfilled. India recently grabbed their best position in FIFA rankings 96th that is because of India’s current football system I-league. Yes, playing in the ISL with overseas players helped Indian players to polish their skills. There is no hesitation that ISL is the future of Indian football but AIFF has to ensure India’s top club Aizawl FC get a place to play in the top league next season otherwise India will have to cope with a big loss.

Even AFC tried to resolve the issue but AIFF president Praful Patel didn’t pay heed to their inputs. He said ISL will be the national league in the 2018-2019 season and I-League will be demoted to the second division of India.

AIFF will have to lay a foundation of elevation and delegation in ISL and I-league to encourage second division teams. Otherwise, I-league teams will lose interest. Delegation and elevation process will make both leagues interesting. If AIFF fails to make sure that they have no right to call themselves custodian of Indian football.

FIFA U-17 World Cup

The U-17 World Cup has exposed that Indian infrastructure was not enough to host a top level tournament. A FIFA team’s tour of India showed the reality of Indian stadiums. There was now practice ground available. FIFA team’s report exposed that AIFF as an organisation has done nothing for the development of football in the nation. However, as FIFA wants to woo Indian masses they went ahead with the plan and provided monetary support to all six venues-Kolkata, Kochi, Guwahati, Mumbai, Goa, and Delhi. As all venues are also almost ready, there was still confusion regarding Delhi as the venue as the city will be covered by polluted air following Diwali.

Meanwhile, Indian U-17 has been given exposure tours in Mexico, Spain, Germany, Iran, and Russia. Recently, AIFF has received flak from international media for passing false information to the media that Indian boys defeated Italy U-17 national team. The fact was later proved wrong and India U-17 had become a subject of mockery because they had defeated a club side. It was AIFF that should be blamed for this, but the brazen governing body didn’t offer an apology to the Indian fans for its intentional mistake.

AIFF even went on to sack former U-17 coach with just a few months left for the tournament because of Indian team’s lackluster performance during a 16-team tournament. When Indian Colts had already accommodated to the training method of the German coach Nicolai Adam, AIFF replaced him with Portuguese coach Luis Norton de Matos.

However, it is expected that the U-17 World Cup will bring a sea change in Indian football culture if slack AIFF learns a lesson from the tournament and other national teams who will visit India with an ambition to win the yellow metal. Otherwise, Indian football may never see a change.