Few changes too many in Indian football
While change leads to excitement, too much of it is hurting Indian football. It is time all stakeholders understood that too
We are past the halfway mark of a unique season in Indian football, the first ever with two top-division leagues, the I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL), running in parallel —and the effects of this structure have been felt in full by the various stakeholders, including the fans.
Sanjoy Sen, who resigned as the head coach of Mohun Bagan in January, is one example. Over a successful three-year period at Bagan, which saw the Kolkata club lift their first national league title in 13 years, Sen had thrived on continuity in team selection and relied heavily on a core group of Indian players, a luxury he wasn’t afforded this season.
Prior to the current season, the privately run ISL, formed in 2014, ran from October-December while the I-League, India’s national football league, began in January. So the best players would play in both leagues. This season, both leagues started in November and a majority of the Indian players opted to play in the more lucrative ISL.
Bagan, like other teams in the I-League, lost their core: goalkeeper Debjit Majumder (to ATK, formerly Atlético de Kolkata), forwards Jeje Lalpekhlua (Chennaiyin FC) and Balwant Singh (Mumbai City FC), defender Pritam Kotal (Delhi Dynamos FC) and midfielders Pronay Halder (FC Goa), Souvik Chakrabarti (Jamshedpur FC) and Bikramjit Singh (Chennaiyin FC). “After we could not hold on to a set team, we had to manage with whatever team we could build," Sen told football website Goal.com after his exit. By January, the weakened Bagan side had slumped to fifth spot in the league standings, making Sen’s position at the club untenable.
The ISL itself is not immune to structural changes. Ahead of this season, clubs had to rebuild their squads virtually from scratch. For they could retain only up to two senior and three Under-21 players, the rest being chosen from a draft. Mumbai City were the only club to retain their manager from the previous year, while Delhi Dynamos FC did not retain a single player. Little wonder, then, that Delhi’s home games have been marred by low attendance this season, with the team failing to win games and the club lacking a football symbol for fans to identify with.
The I-League, in contrast, had largely been steady till this season.
But changes up and down the footballing ladder have had an impact on I-League clubs too and made this season hard to predict. In an 18-game season, it has taken many clubs more than six matches to adjust to their new identities. Several others are still struggling.
The I-League was expected to be a two-way shoot-out between the Kolkata clubs, especially with Bengaluru FC, which moved to the ISL, no longer in the fray. The new rule that allowed five overseas players per club was also expected to favour the financially superior Kolkata clubs. But things haven’t gone according to plan. Aside from losing its Indian core, the Bagan side has struggled to cope with injuries to key foreigners. Sony Norde, now released due to injury, missed half the season while Yuta Kinowaki has been fit for one match and Diogo Ferreira returned to Australia without playing a game. Ansumana Kromah’s profligacy in front of goal cost him his contract while Asier Dipanda, the top goalscorer last season, hasn’t been prolific.
A revamped East Bengal haven’t hit their stride either under new head coach Khalid Jamil, who had led Aizawl FC to a fairy-tale I-League triumph in 2017. Jamil had brought with him Mahmoud Al Amna, Laldanmawia Ralte, Brandon Vanlalremdika and Lalramchullova from his old club and had signed Katsumi Yusa and Eduardo Ferreira from arch-rivals Bagan. Two derby defeats to Bagan, though, and a habit of conceding late in games have proven costly. East Bengal sit third in the league table with dreams of winning a first I-League title fast disappearing for yet another season.
Making the most of the instability in Kolkata are surprise front-runners Minerva Punjab FC and debutants Neroca FC, the first I-League club from Manipur. On debut last year, Minerva had managed only two wins and narrowly avoided finishing last. “When you’re given only 12 days to make your team, players don’t even know each other’s names on the field," Minerva owner Ranjit Bajaj had complained last season, following the All India Football Federation’s (Aiff’s) late announcement of their inclusion in the top division.
One year on, the change is visible. On the back of a proper pre-season, and with the best-value overseas players, Minerva lead the league after 11 games and look good to go the distance. “We had time to scout for players, train together and even play friendlies before this season," Bajaj points out. Bhutanese Chencho Gyeltshen has toyed with opponents, while midfielder Kassim Aidara and defender Guy Eric Dano have formed a solid backbone for the team. William Opoku and Lago Bei have scored decisive goals upfront, while Indian players, like defender Abhishek Ambekar and the versatile Gagandeep Bali, have chipped in with consistent performances.
In the ISL, Bengaluru FC and Chennaiyin FC, two clubs which retained their core, sit atop the points table. FC Goa were terrible last year but this season, the club invested in manager Sergio Lobera’s attacking philosophy and are reaping the benefits: Goa are on course to make the play-offs. FC Pune City, with a squad rebuilt after three years of failure, are likely to finish in the top four but are closely followed by Jamshedpur FC, in their debut season, and Mumbai City, with a team similar to the one that finished top last season.
The bottom section of the league is quite telling as well. Jamshedpur FC are in their debut campaign. Defending champions ATK have a new squad and look far from the most dominant team in ISL history. They have also sacked their coach mid-season, as have NorthEast United FC and Kerala Blasters FC, whereas Delhi have started afresh.
While change is good, too much of it is detrimental to Indian football. Football clubs across the world thrive not just on geographical identities but footballing ones too—and the failure to develop these leads to tangible costs (of repeatedly recruiting players and coaching staff) as well as intangible costs (of losing the fan base).
Players are also forced to adapt constantly, which isn’t conducive for their growth. Manipur winger Jackichand Singh, for instance, was the I-League’s best player in 2015 but he played for five different clubs over the next three years before joining Kerala Blasters, his current club. Singh’s potential remains unfulfilled today. This merry-go-round does not benefit him, or anyone else for that matter—and it’s about time Indian football starts to settle down.