Churchill Brothers lifted the I-League trophy for the second time in their history on May 7, 2013, at Tilak Maidan, Goa, after a 1-1 draw with Mohun Bagan.
The Red Machines, as they are known, topped the I-League 2012-13 standings with 55 points from 26 games. Pune FC finished second with 52 points, while United Sikkim got relegated.
The 2012-13 I-League season was no ordinary football season in India. The I-League featured 14 clubs, and the departmental teams could participate for the last time before they were debarred by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) for failing to establish themselves as ‘separate private bodies’ as per the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) regulations.
The I-League never managed to feature 14 teams again, and Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) clubs such as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Air India and ONGC never really made their appearance in the division again.
The fall of PSU clubs
The debarment of the departmental sides from the Indian football league structure meant that well-paid public employees could no longer pursue football professionally.
Employees joining the PSUs in Sports Quota would form a significant share of the player pool in football and other sports in India. Several players featuring for the publicly-owned teams went on to play for the Indian national team, including the legendary IM Vijayan (Kerala Police & State Bank of Travancore).
Clubs like Air India, ONGC and HAL, who had several top players in their ranks, could no longer compete in the I-League.
AIFF swung into action and began franchise entries into the I-League to fill the gap left by the debarred clubs, instead of a PSU league parallel to the national pyramid.
Clubs shut down and withdraw
Clubs like Bengaluru FC, Kalyani Bharat FC, DSK Shivajians, Chennai City FC, Minerva Punjab and Gokulam Kerala FC were added to the top division through franchise entries.
However, AIFF failed to protect several existing clubs, and a chunk of the player pool with club infrastructure has been lost over time. The AIFF failed to bring in sponsors, broadcasters with the assistance from IMG-Reliance over the years.
Clubs failed to continue participating in the top division due to the step-motherly treatment mooted to the I-League. With almost zero advertisements of the league, eminent Indian football clubs like Pune FC, Mumbai FC, Royal Wahingdoh, United Sikkim, Viva Kerala, JCT FC and Mahindra United were forced to shut down.
Clubs with a long legacy of supplying footballers to the national team such as Dempo SC, Salgaocar SC and Sporting Clube de Goa also withdrew from the league, further demoting the competition in the I-League.
Even franchise entries like DSK Shivajians and Kalyani Bharat FC shut shop over no incentives to field a team in the I-League. The I-League was all but a stable football structure.
The horrific condition of the Indian top division prompted IMG-Reliance to start a new league – the Indian Super League (ISL).
ISL, which began as a promotional franchise event, has now turned out to be the top division of the country, putting the final nail on the coffin, as far I-League is concerned.
ISL needs a policy overhaul
ISL replaced I-League with the promise of not going the I-League away. However, in hindsight, ISL has largely been moving towards becoming yet another I-League, only offering better pomp and show.
The sole aim of ISL was to promote football in the country and encouraging people to open football clubs in order to create a larger competitive player pool.
However, ISL has turned out as the monopoly in the Indian football market. The league is closed, which does not allow any incentive for I-League and I-League 2nd Division clubs to pump-in money in order to experience top division football.
The existing franchises have been in deplorable financial conditions. Clubs have been in losses worth millions without any possibility of a near-future break-even. The finances were so unstable that FC Pune City had to shut shop, and Hyderabad FC had to be formed.
Now, one may argue that it does not really impact anything in terms of the player pool and youth teams. However, FC Pune City were one of the few ISL teams which focused on youth infrastructure, which has now been rendered useless.
Delhi Dynamos FC shifted to a new city altogether in Bhubaneshwar, potentially leaving their youth team players in Delhi City Leagues unemployed.
The fans of both the teams are also left with no teams to support. Football Sports Development (FSDL), the governing body of the ISL, had to play a role in preserving the football clubs, but it failed to do so.
Instead of allowing more number of football clubs, teams moved or shut down.
ATK-Mohun Bagan Merger is a bad sign of things
The ATK-Mohun Bagan merger is further testimony to the same problem. ATK had just started to make a name for themselves in Indian football. They started to have a sizable fanbase and had a very strong first-team policy.
Instead of adding Mohun Bagan to the ISL as a separate entity, the Green and Maroon have been merged with ATK, resulting in 50% of the potential employed player pool rendered without clubs.
Indian football is in dire need of new football clubs with the intent of serving the interests of the sport in the country. The national and state bodies have a much bigger role to play than they have projected, in protecting football clubs of this country.
Indian football cannot have more mergers like ATK-Mohun Bagan just to fulfill the geographical and economic criteria of a football league.
The investment of the City Group in Mumbai City FC was a welcome move, felicitated by FSDL, and more such investment and sponsorship deals are the need of the moment in Indian football, to help clubs survive.
A bigger and open national league, competitive state leagues and a larger player pool are what Indian football needs. Indian football can’t just allow club mergers, club shutdowns and debarment of PSU sides right now.
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