FIFA hopes for a strong I-League: Not as easy as it sounds

FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke hopes to see a strong Indian league, however that is not possible until IMG-Reliance and AIFF solve their differences with the clubs...

The visit of FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke has created a lot of feel good factor, as the Frenchman yet again reiterated the desire of the global governing body to work in tandem with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), to help improve the level of football in India.

While India’s hopes of hosting the 2017 U-17 World Cup and their “Lakshya” to qualify for the 2022 World Cup were encouraged, Valcke was quick to point out what the main aim of FIFA was, when he commented, “Our main objective is to develop domestic football and bring it to the International level. People would take interest in watching Indian Domestic League and not only the English Premier League and the La Liga and so on.”

It is easy to see why Valcke is so keen on developing the Indian domestic football, as improvement in the local leagues would help foster interest in the masses, improve the quality of footballers and in the long-term make the league attractive to watch, as well as to invest in it, which would eventually help Indian football to blossom.

Though all of this does sound easy to understand, but implementing it in a country like India is not only hard albeit next to impossible the I-League clubs, AIFF and domestic football rights holder IMG-Reliance all at loggerheads.

AIFF sold all its commercial rights to football in India to IMG-Reliance...

All the three parties, who hold the key to the success of the game in India, are pulling in opposite directions, as they look to safeguard their own interests.

The present scenario came into being after the short-sighted AIFF handed over all their commercial and marketing rights to IMG-Reliance for 15 years in 2010 in a deal that would see the football federation earn Rs.700 crores over the specified period of time, while their new commercial partners would take away all the profits that they earn by promoting football within India.

That deal works out fine for IMG-Reliance and the AIFF, but a “minor” inconvenience arose. Such an agreement left nothing for the football clubs in India, who were already feeding on scraps. TV rights, which form the main source of revenue for the clubs internationally, doesn't bring in any profits for the clubs as whatever little money earned, if at all, goes to IMG-Reliance, who own the commercial rights.

As per the club licensing criterion of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the I-League must be a separate legal entity and must be run by an independent body comprising of the clubs, the I-League itself and a few members from the Indian FA and not the AIFF Executive Committee alone as is the case now.

However while the AIFF has put pressure on clubs to spend crores of rupees to reach the standard level of professionalism, on their own part, after having unilaterally made a decision on behalf of all the I-League clubs and handing IMG-Reliance all the commercial rights, they have also failed in making the league a separate entity.

As the tug of war regarding profit sharing between the clubs and IMG-Reliance intensifies, it leaves the progress of the game in the country in doubt.

The clubs formed the IPFCA to safeguard their own interests....

Disgruntled with the lack of progress related to professionalizing the league and with the view of putting up a united front, the clubs formed the I-League Professional Football Clubs' Association (IPFCA) with the objective of amongst other things, making the I-League professional and sustainable.

But given that IMG-Reliance already have a deal in place with the AIFF, they are looking to safeguard their interests and hence, so far haven't committed to making the I-League a separate legal entity subject to legal opinion.

Add to that IMG-Reliance's decision to invest in a new two month promotional tournament which shall run for 2 months every year instead of focusing on improving the present domestic circuit, and the situation becomes even more unclear.

While the clubs are insisting that those amongst them fulfill the AFC's professional club licensing norms be allowed to be a part of the new tournament, IMG-Reliance favour a franchise system wherein an I-League club owner would have to bid. Further IMG-Reliance plan to take the players from the I-League "on loan" and thereby pay the club twice the remuneration, a suggestion which hasn't gone down well with the clubs.

Even if the current scenario is somehow resolved, it does leave one open to the questions that how will running a premier tournament for just 2 months help football develop in the long-term, especially as it jeopardizes the future of the I-League, which being already unprofitable. The I-League, according to the club owners, will be reduced to a poor cousin of the more lucrative tournament and almost an after-thought.

With the owners already making huge losses on their investments, and with dwindling interest, why will they continue to throw their money away is anyone’s guess.

However IMG-Reliance, even after promising much, has failed to allay the fears of the club owners. Interestingly, IMG-Reliance too has been losing money and their idea of the two month promotional tournament is to recover those losses and make return on investment.

And hence the domestic league, which Valcke feels would form the backbone of the game in India, lies in a state of paralysis, and the situation promises to remain in such a condition. Until the three major stakeholders of Indian football get their act together to resolve all their outstanding issues and work as a team for improvement of Indian football.

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