The AIFF announced on May 17 last year that there would be a merger between the I-League and ISL. Why suddenly change gears and say the two leagues will be played simultaneously?
We feel it will take some more time for the integration of the two leagues. There are various reasons; the structure of both leagues is different, particularly with the franchise fee. Instead of merging from this year, we will do over a period of two or three years in a structured manner where issues can be narrowed down. We don’t want pain for either I-League or ISL clubs. The ISL has some contractual obligations. They are city-based teams and for some number of years, other teams will not be able to play in the same city. While unifying the leagues, we have to ensure that the importance of I-League clubs is not reduced.
Has the emergence of Aizawl FC as I-League champions forced the AIFF into this plan?
Not at all. Aizawl and this has no connection. This is something that is being discussed for a long time. Aizawl is a new club and I see no reason why they should be complaining. We are proud that they put up a spirited show and won the league, but don’t forget that last year they were relegated and it was AIFF who reinstated them, at their request. This kind of negativity about AIFF approach is unfair and unjustified. The issue has always been more about legacy clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal who have won many honours.
During his trip to India, former Fifa general secretary Jerome Valcke said a country cannot have two leagues; it just doesn’t work. How will it work in India?
We agree to that. It’s a temporary solution only for the next two to three years. We are therefore proposing that I-League remains the premier tournament and give it our fullest support. We are expanding the number of teams, so players will get more opportunities, fans will get (to see) more matches. Why should the I-League feel inferior? The I-League coverage (this season) has been much better. Matches have been more competitive than ISL games. There is no reason to fear. We assure that when the transition takes place, we will have a proper roadmap where all these issues will be addressed. Contractual issues (with ISL franchises) end after the next two seasons.
Bengaluru FC and East Bengal have picked up the invitation to bid document, while Mohun Bagan could follow. If all three clubs submit their bids and are accepted, will the I-League still continue or will it be the second division?
Yes, yes. There is no question about it. I-League will continue to be the league of the country for next three years till both merge and become one league. We will not do anything until the AFC gives us an approval to what we are doing. We will explain our roadmap to AFC and Fifa. Only when they approve, this can move forward.
In a two-league structure, wouldn’t I-League get step motherly treatment?
In a dual structure, I-League will remain the premier league with champions getting a AFC Champions League play-off slot. The league will be covered by Star Sports and have weekend games. There will be better coverage on television and marketing will be at a very high level. We only want the clubs to improve the stadium attendance. That’s the only thing Star (Sports) is concerned about.
But it looks like the I-League will eventually be reduced to second division…
I-League is the only league we have at the moment. It’s a misnomer that ISL has encroached on the revenue or space of I-League. ISL, in fact, has introduced companies to Indian football which didn’t exist before. How can we deny that ISL brought in new energy to football? While I respect everything that people have been saying, you have to see that there is a little bit of different perspective (to Indian football), thanks to ISL. People are watching more football; did so many people go to the stadiums (in the past)? Let us not undermine the good things that are happening in Indian football: improvement in infrastructure, grassroot development, sprouting of academies, improvement in our (Fifa) ranking, new teams, new cities promoting football.
Even assuming everything is smooth and the league will be held simultaneously, how you will find quality stadiums?
That’s why for three years, we will have to make some adjustments.
Then there is the question of players: the best players will play in the ISL, which leaves the I-League, India’s premier football competition, much poorer…
Not necessarily. Aizawl FC won the I-League with a budget of `2.5 crore while some teams had a budget over `10 crore. Sunil Chhetri plays for Bengaluru FC but Aizawl became champions. So what’s the definition of a best player? Best players can emerge out of nowhere.
One big criticism of the ISL is its dependence of six foreign players in the starting eleven. Isn’t it imperative that there is a reduction in the number of foreign players?
ISL will have to reduce their component of foreign players. It’s envisaged that in next two years, ISL and I-League will have the same component of foreign players.
The AIFF is seen to be heavily supporting ISL in all its endeavours…
In which way are we doing that? We are trying to find the best solution. We have made a proposal to the AFC and they have to agree. We are meeting with AFC (officials) in the next few days and we will take a call. If anyone has a perfect solution, we are willing to listen to them.