The Germans called it a ‘birth defect’.
Since its inception, the country’s football leagues have been run and governed by their football association. Unhappy with the arrangement, which they claimed robbed them of their ‘independence’, the clubs from the top two divisions, Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2, cut the proverbial umbilical cord. And at the turn of the century, they all came together to fix the ‘defect’ by forming a separate body that took over the management and operations of Germany’s domestic leagues.
This move was in continuation of a structure that was well established in most mature football countries. Clubs in Spain, the Netherlands, and France as well as Japan and South Korea had already formed associations independent financially from their national federation to organise and manage the domestic league systems.
For years, there have been muted calls for the same in India, where the premier division, the Indian Super League (ISL), is essentially run by what can be described as a start-up – Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), a joint venture between Reliance Sports and Star India under the aegis of the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
Last week, the Committee of Administrators (CoA), tasked by the Supreme Court to draft the constitution of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) as per the National Sports Code of 2011, submitted a copy to the apex court.
Supreme Court to hear objections and finalise constitution of the @IndianFootball next Thursday, July 28. Takes into note objections by state associations, FSDL and also FIFA deadlines. Constitution to be finalised on “expeditious footing”, bench states. #IndianFootball
— Mihir Vasavda (@mihirsv) July 21, 2022
According to Article 1.50 of the draft, the CoA proposed the ‘senior most top division league’ be ‘owned, operated, recognised and directly managed by the AIFF.’ It goes on to add that the ‘above functions/roles cannot be delegated or assigned to any other entity or organisation.’
While the Sports Code does not get into the issue of a professional league specifically, the drafting of this particular article leaves very little scope for the clubs to become majority stakeholders of the league. And in doing so, the CoA might have missed an opportunity to align India’s domestic structure in the ‘right way’, feel senior Indian football officials.
The chief executive of former ISL champions Bengaluru FC, Mandar Tamhane, said: “Ideally, this could have been done and if the CoA would have guided us in that direction, it would have been appreciated.”
The FSDL has challenged the CoA’s proposal in the Supreme Court, which heard the case on Thursday. Former Solicitor General Harish Salve, representing FSDL, argued: “Certain implications which may flow from the language… may tie the hands of all future parties to bring a league system which is prevalent in a large number of countries. Whether the language needs a bit of toning is something Your Lordships may have to consider.”
The Supreme Court bench, comprising Justices DY Chandrachud, Surya Kant and AS Bopanna, agreed to look at the ‘toning’ during the next hearing on July 28, when it will hear the objections raised by all parties in relation to the draft constitution. When FSDL presents their objections, the issue of the league is likely to be at the heart of their arguments.
Self-managed league system
In 2014, research conducted by the International Centre for Sports Studies on behalf of FIFA, found that out of the 32 national associations it studied – including India – 26 top division leagues were self-managed by the clubs, with 22 being financially independent.
“Our analysis clearly shows that self-management goes hand in hand with the ability to generate sufficient income to finance the administrative structure needed to properly run competitions,” the study noted.
India, of course, did not feature among the nations that had a league managed by the clubs. At the time of the research, the I-League, which failed to take off, was the country’s premier division 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-tier league.
The structure of the ISL, however, has often come under the scanner for its flaws. Over the years, the AIFF has had little say in the management of the league. The clubs, who lose an average of Rs 25-30 crore per season, too have expressed their frustration over, among other things, the unique situation where the league’s broadcaster is also the co-owner, unlike other nations where TV rights are sold to the highest bidder.
The fact that the ISL is also a closed tournament – that is, it doesn’t follow the standard pattern of promotion and relegation – meant that the clubs that play in the lower rungs have often been left to fend for themselves, leading to many of them either shutting shop or scaling down their operations.
A veteran administrator noted: “In most leagues where the clubs are the stakeholders, they also tend to take care of the interests of the teams that play in a division lower to them. They are aware that at the end of a season, some teams from the second division will get promoted and join them in the top tier, so it’s a way to keep them competitive. In India, that’s not the case.”
Salve, during Thursday’s hearing, pointed out the ‘immediate contractual rights’ in transferring the ownership rights of the Super League from FSDL to the AIFF, as proposed by the CoA. The contract is valid until 2025, the year when promotion and relegation will begin in the ISL and I-League as per the roadmap charted out in 2019.
Larsing Ming, the owner of I-League side Shillong Lajong and a former AIFF vice-president, said the club structure has ‘gone up manifold’ but a decision on who should manage the league must be left to an elected AIFF committee. “We are on the right path as far as club ecosystem and structures are concerned. These are intricate matters, which will have huge consequences on football in the country. A democratically-elected body of the AIFF should take a call on footballing affairs,” he said.
Tamhane – whose team has played in both, the ISL and I-League, and won both titles – said making clubs the main stakeholders is the right way forward and sustainable for the league.
“This thought was brought up a few years ago. It was a discussion between the league and the clubs and there wasn’t anything official,” he said. “From a constructive and sustainability point of view, ISL longevity, this is the way forward. So in that sense, it’s a missed opportunity.”