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Goal.com's Sarthak Dubey argues why the 2nd division of the I-League needs to be restructured if the grassroots development of Indian football has to happen...

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By Sarthak Dubey

Yes. A second tier to Indian Football indeed exists. The stage is set, the red carpet has been rolled and 26 teams from all over India are ready to battle it out to gain that all-important ticket to glory. Promotion into India’s top domestic league is not as easy as any naïve Indian football fan perceives it to be. Unlike the European 2nd division leagues like the Championship (England), Serie B (Italy) and Ligue 2 (France), the I-League 2nd Division is NOT a full-blown league format that is played on a season-long basis alongside the 1st Division. This is mainly due to the lack of funds, ludicrous popularity of the game amongst fans, geographical size and poor marketability of football in India.

Instead, it is a tournament played every year between March-April-May with a two-round format. The clubs have been chosen based on their fulfillment of AFC club licensing criterion. The clubs were requested to fulfill the required norms and had to submit their documents by the 22nd of December 2012. Clubs such as HAL Bangalore, who are heavily backed by Public Sector units, were ineligible to participate. This and the omission of Air India and ONGC from next season’s I-League came as extremely bold moves by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to professionalize things.

This season’s I-League 2nd Division attracted close to 50 nominations, but only 26 teams (who fulfilled the criteria) were finally selected by the AIFF to participate. For Round 1, the 26 teams have been divided into three groups A, B and C as follows:

”The top two teams from each group will qualify for the Final Round. The six teams who qualify from Round “I” will play in a double leg league at Karnataka and Kerala in the Final Round. The teams placed 1st and 2nd in the Final Round will be promoted to the I-League 2013-2014.  Although, to gain promotion to the I-League 2013-2014, the teams will have to meet the club licensing criteria circulated by the AIFF. Teams that do not meet the licensing criteria for professional clubs will not be promoted. Although a team may qualify by virtue of their position in the 2nd Division League, promotion of the team will be subject to the above.” – As stated by the AIFF.

The various participating teams have been classified on the basis of city/state in the following diagram. Kolkata sees the maximum representation with North-Eastern states getting their fair share as well. Surprisingly, Goa sees only 1 team trying to break into the top tier (with most of the other Goa teams already comfortably there!). In most of their press meetings, the AIFF have been stressing on “spreading the league” to various South Indian states as well, to avoid the I-League from becoming a Goa-Kolkata battle ground. But despite their truly ‘imposing vision’, only 4 out of the 26 teams are from South India. A metropolitan city like Chennai doesn’t even have a team. A city like Hyderabad, with such influential strings, flamboyant history and revelling culture doesn’t have a team. Bangalore and Kerala have two clubs each.

  

 

The DEMERITS of such a league system are as follows:

  • This format resembles a national-level high school football tournament, played between a short interval of 3 months. The rest of the season, players from these teams, waste their precious playing careers in incompetent local city leagues or at home, doing nothing. This is the grassroot level where emerging players are made lazy and incompetent.
  • Since the I-League 2nd Division sides do not play regular football, there is no steady fan base to back these sides when it really matters. Player performance and fans’ support share a direct relationship – greater the support, more the motivation, more the passion and better the results.
  • Teams getting relegated from the I-League in the previous season have to wait approximately 7-to-8 months hatching eggs! They have to wait for the 2nd Division play-offs to begin in March, meanwhile participating in meaningless friendlies and incompetent local tournaments. Players lose the motivation, spirit and match rhythm of playing football week in-week out.
  • Similarly, what happens to the other 24 teams who DON’T gain promotion this May? What do they do till next March? It’s called hatching eggs.
  • Usually, big teams in Europe send their fringe and youth players into lower leagues to give them regular playing time and much needed experience. Where do the reserve and youth players of Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Dempo, Churchill Brothers or even Mumbai FC go? They rot on the bench, far away from being mentioned even in the squad lists, hoping to get some playing time.
  • European leagues also have a “reserve league” where even the reserves of each team play regular football. Let’s take the example of HAL Bangalore legend Xavier Vijay Kumar. The flying Bangalorean inspired HAL into back-to-back survivals in the I-League until signing for Churchill Brothers in 2011. A player of such quality is never on the team sheet at Churchill, having made hardly 3-to-4 appearances for the first team and is quite miserably getting stagnant. If the I-League 2nd Division was a full blown league system, flowing throughout the year, he could have had an option to be loaned out to smaller teams, to help them get promoted. Has anybody ever imagined how many quality players like Xavier are craving first team action in the I-League?

The AIFF Vice-President Subrata Dutta recently said, "Success is ensured when cost analysis of an ongoing project is done on a regular basis. Such a calculation revealed the possibility and need to curb expenditure incurred during teams travel in various zones. The existing concept of home and away matches should remain but the I-League should be divided into two conferences - East and West.”

Mr. Dutta is spot on about the cost analysis and everything, but I wouldn't delve into the why the funds are a problem. I strongly feel that the I-League must remain an undivided national concept, despite the “financial troubles of the AIFF”. Taking the Goa-Kolkata flavour away, would almost be like sucking the blood out of a human body. Instead they should concentrate on making it a more watchable, professional, profitable and exciting league. Expanding the size and including clubs from South and North India should also be on the AIFF’s radar.

What needs a division in geographical location and complete restructuring of the format is the I-League 2nd Division. Here is a plan which might suit Indian football’s 2nd tier and solve many of the above mentioned demerits:

  • Divide the I-League 2nd Division into three zones/conferences: Eastern, Southern and Western.
  • Each conference must consist of 20 teams competing in a full blown league system, played alongside the I-League season, week in, week out.
  • The winner of each conference must get direct entry into next season’s I-League.
  • While the 2nd and 3rd finishing teams from each conference must involve in a playoff to decide the final 4th promotion spot.
  • This way, I-League teams would fear relegation and strive harder for success, while teams in the I-League 2nd Division would have a delicious incentive to win promotion.
  • The AIFF must also restructure the Federation Cup along the lines of the FA Cup in England, where all the club teams in the country play according to a random draw-of-lots in a knockout tournament. This should include clubs from both 1st and 2nd Divisions of the I-League. Indian Cup romance, anybody?

The I-League 2nd Division kicks off today. Catch all the action, manager quotes and updates, right here, on Goal.com India!     

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