Indian Super League – optimism and hope

THE INDIAN Super League (ISL) will begin its eighth season at the end of November 2021 hoping the competition can resume its early momentum. The ISL will take place in Goa in a bio-secure bubble, and is expected to be played behind closed doors. Three venues are expected to be used: the Fatorda Stadium, the GMC Athletic Stadium and the Tilak Maidan.

The ISL is also breaking new ground with the launch of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) as digital collectibles. The league has partnered with Terra Virtua to create unique digital collectibles that will represent, to a certain degree, a modern-day equivalent of trading cards. They will feature the league and its 11 member clubs.

This move, which may seem alien to legacy football fans across Europe, demonstrates the ISL’s strategy of being a league of today, embracing technology and new methods of interaction with supporters.  NFTs are a blockchain-enabled technology and are growing in relevance. The ISL’s head of digital, Hoshedar Gundevia, commented: “Digital collectibles have been one of the most talked-about fan engagement avenues in 2021 and as a young league, we would like to keep pace with the demands of India’s millenial and Gen Z audience segments.”

Indian football experts acknowledge that younger generations do not necessarily want to watch games in stadiums, so they consume their football and connect with clubs in many different ways. The use of NFTs and social media are both aimed at getting closer to younger fans. 

Football is the second most popular spectator sport in India after cricket, in both live and broadcasting terms. It is getting stronger all the time, said Vivek Sethia of India on Track at the World Football Summit in Madrid. “In the past our league was weak but the ISL is improving commercially and in the creation of academies,” he added. 

Sethia said Indian football is taking a top-down approach as opposed to the bottom-up stance taken by most countries trying to establish themselves. The ISL started with eight clubs, but now has 11. “I see only growth in the next 10 years,” he insisted. 

Before the pandemic turned the world upside down, attendances had fallen sharply for the ISL. The last campaign with crowds was 2019-20 and gates averaged around 13,000 – less than half the figures for 2015.  They’ve been below 20,000 since 2017-18, which may have something to do with TV coverage and the scheduling of games. Whatever the reason, crowd figures may not be an accurate barometer of the popularity of the game in India and it has to be remembered that there are around 150 million followers across the country.

India offers the potential for international corporate sponsors as well as link-ups with European leagues and clubs, who can market themselves to a potentially huge audience. Spain’s Sevilla and Atlético Madrid have been particularly active in this process. Sevilla have also formed a five-year partnership with I-League club Bengaluru United with will include the creation of shared soccer schools. The club’s president, Jose Castro Carmona said the deal was recognition of the appeal of India as a vibrant football market and the importance of India as part of Sevilla’s international expansion strategy.

India, generally, underachieves in some sports. Their record in the Olympics is poor and they have never played in the FIFA World Cup, despite a population of 1.4 billion of which between 10 and 30% can be classified as middle class. The national football team has already been eliminated from the 2022 World Cup. 

FC Goa, after winning the ISL regular season in 2020, qualified for the 2021 AFC Champions League, the first ISL club to play in the group stage of the competition. They came up against Abu Dhabi’s Al-Wahda, Al-Rayyan of Qatar and Iran’s Persepolis. They failed to win any of their six group games, but drew three.

The Indian Super League champions in 2020-21 were Mumbai City, a club 65%-owned by the City Football Group. Their coach is Sergio Lobera, who joined Mumbai City after a success stint with FC Goa. The club will play in the group stage of the 2022 Champions League.

Mumbai City have strengthened their title-winning squad, signing Brazilian forward Ygor Catatau on loan from Madureira, Australian midfielder Brad Inman and promising Indian defender Naocha Singh, who is seen as one to watch in 2021-22. But the most exciting capture could be Lalengmawia Ralte, or Apuia, as he is known. The club paid NorthEast United £ 200,000-plus for the 20 year-old midfielder who has already won six caps for India.

SC East Bengal, one of the oldest and best supported clubs in India, have had a troublesome close season and at one stage, it looked as though they had lost their backer, Shree Cement. differences were patched-up but Robbie Fowler, their coach, departed at the beginning of September and the club appointed Manolo Díaz, the manager of Spanish club Hércules of Alicante. The 2020-21 season was their first in the Indian Super League after winning promotion from the I-League. This year, they have been bold in the transfer market, signing the likes of Jackichand Singh and Adil Khan on loans from Hyderabad and Mumbai City respectively. They have also signed Croatian forward Antonio Perošević from Ujpest of Budapest, also on a one-year loan.

SC East Bengal are not the only club to have had financial worries over the past few years. Pune, Mohun Bagan, Bengaluru, Mumbai FC, Churchill Brothers, United SC and JCT Mills, among others, have all run into problems.

As football around the world returns to something approaching normal, the Indian Super League could be facing a vital campaign in 2021-22. There is a desire to encourage development of Indian players, hence the limit of four foreigners on the field per team at any one time, even though a club can sign as many as six overseas professionals. This has to be a positive move, although fans are always attracted by shining talent from abroad. But the sustainability of any up-and-coming product does depend on the development of local players and coaches, as other leagues have discovered. 

Indian football at a tipping point

THE FUTURE OF the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League looks a little uncertain as the country’s governing bodies grapple with creating the optimal structure for the game in Asia’s third biggest economy.

While the Indian Super League continues to form new business partnerships and starts to develop young players, spectator appetite seems to be on the decline. Last season, average attendances dropped to 13,000 from a high of 27,000 in 2015. Gates have been steadily falling in the past couple of years and the latest drop means they have halved in just three years.

This aside, India has to solve the problem of two leagues running almost in competition with each other. The differential between the ISL and I-League in terms of crowds is now very small – less than 3,000. Consider that just a few seasons back, the ISL had a 20,000 advantage over the I-League, which clearly suffered from the introduction and financial clout of the new competition.

What’s happened? The ISL has stopped attracting star names and the novelty factor has worn off. Many of the big names disappointed when they did arrive in India and franchise costs started to become a little unwieldy.

For all the media attention, ISL clubs do not benefit from the broadcasting of their matches. The income from TV goes to Star India, the co-owner of the league. The financial model of many clubs is unsustainable, with wages and running costs outstripping revenues by a significant margin. The average annual wage of an ISL player is around £ 82,000 in a country where the average daily wage is the equivalent of just £ 3.

Clubs have tried to bring down expenses and the league now has a limit on foreign players in a bid to encourage the development of young talent. That hasn’t prevented foreigners from being hired – of the ISL’s 10 clubs, five are managed by Spanish coaches, two by Brits (John Gregory and Phil Brown) and one apiece from Portugal, Croatia and the Netherlands.

The attendances should arguably be higher than the current level, given the size of the population in some cities. Mumbai, for example, has a population of more than 12 million, yet struggles to attract crowds above 5,000. Conversely, Jamshedpur is a city of 1.3 million but was the best supported team last season with an average of 20,000.

Despite strong investment, Indian Super League clubs have laboured in building fanbases. Commercially, big companies in Asia Pacific have shown their enthusiasm for the project – as well as Indian corporates such as Tata, Apollo and CESC, South Korea’s Kia and Qatar’s Aspire are among the league’s sponsors.

Pune City, for example, announced they were in financial difficulty earlier this year and there was talk of a merger with Mumbai. Delhi Dynamos also have major issues. It has been reported that almost every club in Indian football has financial problems.

The General Secretary of the All India Football Federation (AIFA), Kushal Das, admitted there were both financial and organisational hurdles to overcome. “We need money to save Indian football. We need investors who can help sustain the financial aspect of conducting the game,” he said.

Equally concerning for Indian football is the lack of clarity about the shape of the forthcoming season. The AIFA has revealed that it wants to make the ISL the top division in India with the I-League lower down the structure. Understandably, the I-League clubs are not terribly enamoured with the idea.

At present, the I-League is the officially-recognised top division in the eyes of the Asian confederation and the league’s winners enter the Asian Champions League. The ISL, in order to protect the investments of franchise owners is a “closed league” with no relegation, whereas the I-League has conventional promotion and relegation. The ISL’s model was similar to cricket’s Indian Premier League, but it hasn’t captured the imagination of the public.

Most people accept that running two leagues is not a system that can be sustained and there is strong momentum behind merging the ISL and I-League. The Asian Football Confederation is keen for this consolidation to take place as soon as possible. Everyone is currently talking about “roadmaps” with a number of I-League clubs proposing a 20-team unified league drawn from both competitions.

Some are still optimistic – the City Football Group, Manchester City’s parent organisation, is interested in buying an Indian club in 2019 to broaden its global footprint, while there are hopes that India’s promising under-17 players will start to emerge in the ISL.

With conflict between leagues, friction with marketing and broadcasting companies and a multitude of agendas, along with the dwindling crowds, Indian football continues to be at odds with itself. The next few weeks could be vital for the future of the game in India, but it seems certain a unified approach may be the only way ahead for a country of 1.4 billion people that doesn’t just have a passion for cricket.

Photo: PA