In 2016, Bengaluru FC were the first Indian football team to make it to the Final of the AFC Cup. This happened prior to them entering the Indian Super League (ISL) and making it the furthest in Asian football by playing just in the I-League. The Blues were not the only ones.
East Bengal FC and Dempo SC also reached the AFC Cup semis in 2008 and 2013 respectively. Then came the birth of the ISL and an injection of cash into Indian football. One might imagine that Indian clubs now taking it a step further in Asia. However, that has certainly not been the case so far.
Causing lots of uncertainty for fans on both sides came the merger between Mohun Bagan and ATK. But, the ATK Mohun Bagan FC (ATKMB) management made their main objective crystal clear – to make it big in Asia.
To their credit, they did manage to live up to it by putting forward the best Indian squad, joined by top foreign recruits. Players like Joni Kauko, Liston Colaco and Hugo Boumous made it India’s best club line-up on paper by a substantial margin. However, what came after was unexpected but not beyond belief.
ATKMB faced Uzbek side Nasaf in the AFC Cup Inter-Zone Semi-Final. FC Nasaf took the The Mariners by surprise with sheer quality and went up 5-0 at the break. The Uzbek side fortunately held themselves and bagged only a single to end it 6-0. The Mariners thus crashed out of the AFC Cup.
There can be a number reasons for the ATKMB fiasco in Asia. The biggest one was the difference in quality. This was shown very clearly between the Indian team at club level with the rest of the domestic players of Asia. No amount of lavish spending will do anything for the eventual difference in quality between the sides with regards to Indian players.
The pool players available to India is not yet up to the mark for clubs to hunt for Asian glory. Indian footballers earn wages in crores in the ISL, credit to hypermarket inflation. Inflated salaries imply that the Indian players do not require to go abroad to European competitions.
That, coupled with the occupancy of 5/6 foreigners in the ISL has slowed down the development of Indian players. Nonetheless, change is expected. Teams will now be able to choose to field four foreigners in the ISL next term.
The layout of football leagues in India is another reason contributing to the Nasaf result. With Star India as co-owners of India’s top division, the Indian football leagues will not get their respective independent windows.
The media conglomerate is busy with the IPL, ICC T20 World Cup and Pro Kabaddi. This means that the ISL must take place in the remaining bit of the yearly window so as to not discord of audience on sports television.
All Asian football leagues run parallel to Asian competitions, while the ISL observes the European club almanac. As such, the Indian football season culminates in March.
Teams lauded for games in the Asian Champions League and the AFC Cup are left empty-handed once the domestic league closes. This lack of match consistency implies that players are not in constant match habit to face the best in Asia.
Yet another cause, it has been seen that the I-League and the ISL run parallelly. However, this means that players are unable to play matches throughout the year.
In the ISL’s first three years, players would have three months in the I-League, three months in the ISL and two more in invitational tournaments like the Durand Cup, Bordoloi Trophy, IFA Shield and Rovers Cup.
Prior to 2017, The setup permitted roughly seven months of football for a player with close to sixty games. It is not the same anymore. ISL kicks off towards the end of November and ends by February, meaning only three months of football for a player.
Lack of game-time
ISL sides though seem unaffected by the lack of matches. FC Goa and Kerala Blasters choose to participate in the Durand Cup. As for the other ISL teams, they have not played any football apart from the ISL alone.
ATKMB took a step further by labelling the Durand Cup and Calcutta Football League “unprofessional” tournaments. This elicited a bigoted and unabashed perspective to club football tournaments and football India league, ISL the exception.
Lack in quality of the Indian player pool, lesser professional matches and a disorganized calendar has obstructed Indian football on the Asian level. If things are left as they are, football in India will continue to suffer.
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