How the CoA missed the chance to bring Indian football league structure in line with standard global practices

The Germans called it a “congenital anomaly”.

Since its inception, the country’s football leagues have been run and governed by their football association. Unhappy with the arrangement, which they say robbed them of their “independence”, clubs in the top two divisions, Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2, cut the proverbial umbilical cord. And around the turn of the century, they all came together to fix the “flaw” by forming a separate body that took over the management and operations of Germany’s domestic leagues.

The move was a continuation of a well-established structure in most mature football countries. Clubs in Spain, the Netherlands and France as well as Japan and South Korea had already formed associations financially independent of their national federation to organize and manage the national league systems.

For years there have been muted calls for the same in India, where the top division, the Indian Super League (ISL), is essentially run by what can best be described as a start-up – Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), a joint venture between Reliance Sports and Star India under the umbrella of the Indian Football Federation (AIFF).

Last week, the Committee of Trustees (CoA), tasked by the Supreme Court with drafting the constitution of the Football Federation of India (AIFF) in accordance with the 2011 National Sports Code, submitted a copy to the Supreme Court.

According to Article 1.50 of the draft, the CoA proposed that the “most senior league in the highest division” be “owned, operated, recognized and managed directly by the AIFF”. It goes on to add that “the above functions/roles cannot be delegated or assigned to any other entity or organization”.

Missed opportunity

While the Sports Code does not specifically address the issue of a professional league, the wording of this particular article leaves very little room for clubs to become majority players in the league. And in doing so, the CoA may have missed an opportunity to align India’s national structure in the “right way”, senior Indian football officials believe.

The managing director of former ISL champions Bengaluru FC, Mandar Tamhane, said: “Ideally it could have been done and if the CoA had guided us in that direction it would have been appreciated.”

The FSDL challenged the CoA’s proposal in the Supreme Court, which heard the case on Thursday. Former Solicitor General Harish Salve, representing FSDL, said: “Certain implications which may arise from the language…may tie the hands of all future parties to establish a league system which is prevalent in a large number of countries. Whether the tongue needs a little toning up is something Your Lordships may need to consider.

The Supreme Court bench, consisting of Justices DY Chandrachud, Surya Kant and AS Bopanna, agreed to consider the “tonification” at the next hearing on July 28, when it will hear objections raised by all parties regarding the draft constitution. When the FSDL presents its objections, the question of the league is likely to be at the heart of its arguments.

Self-managed league system

In 2014, a study conducted by the International Center for Sports Studies on behalf of FIFA found that of the 32 national associations studied – including India – 26 top division leagues were club-run, of which 22 were financially independent.

“Our analysis clearly shows that self-management goes hand in hand with the ability to generate sufficient revenue to finance the administrative structure necessary for the smooth running of competitions,” notes the study.

India, of course, was not among the nations that had a club-run league. At the time of research, the I-League, which failed to take off, was the top division in the country and was entirely managed by the AIFF. In 2014 the ISL was formed and in 2019 it overtook the I-League as the country’s top league.

The structure of the ISL, however, has often been scrutinized for its flaws. Over the years, the AIFF has had little say in the management of the league. Clubs, which lose an average of Rs 25-30 crore per season, have also expressed frustration at, among other things, the unique situation where the league broadcaster is also a co-owner, unlike other countries where television rights are sold to the highest bidder.

Sustainable model

The fact that the ISL is also a closed tournament – meaning it does not follow the standard promotion and relegation scheme – means that clubs playing in the lower tiers have often been left to their own devices. themselves, which has led many to close their shops or reduce their activities.

A veteran administrator noted: “In most leagues where clubs are the stakeholders, they also tend to look after the interests of teams playing in a lower division than them. They are aware that at the end of a season some second division teams will be promoted and join them at the top level, so this is a way to keep them competitive. In India, this is not the case.

Salve, during Thursday’s hearing, highlighted the “immediate contractual rights” in the transfer of Super League ownership rights from FSDL to AIFF as proposed by the CoA. The contract is valid until 2025, when promotions and relegations in the ISL and I-League will begin according to the roadmap drawn up in 2019.

Larsing Ming, owner of I-League side Shillong Lajong and former vice-president of the AIFF, said the structure of the club had “increased several times”, but a decision on who should manage the league should be left to an elected committee of the AIFF. “We are on the right track when it comes to the club’s ecosystem and structures. These are complex issues, which will have huge consequences for football in the country. A democratically elected body of the AIFF should take a appeal on football affairs,” he said.

Tamhane – whose side have played in both the ISL and I-League, and won both titles – said making clubs the main stakeholders is the right and sustainable way forward for the league.

“This idea was raised a few years ago. It was a discussion between the league and the clubs and there was nothing official,” he said. “From a constructive and sustainable point of view, ISL’s longevity is the way to go. So in that sense, it’s a missed opportunity.

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