Even before the Indian Super League (ISL) kicked off in 2014, the I-League could have been replaced by one created by the commercial partners of the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF). This is a cross the AIFF has had to bear since 2010 when it signed a commercial agreement with IMG-Reliance.
In the contract between IMGReliance and the AIFF, a part about the league structure reads: “…the league which the Company (sic) intends to establish as the most senior and prestigious football league in India (in consultation with the AIFF as contemplated under this Agreement) whether by way of reorganising or reconstituting any existing Competition (sic) (such as the I-League) or the establishment of an entirely new league….” HT has a copy of this.
So, would the AIFF’s commercial partners be within their rights should they want to position ISL as that ‘entirely new league’? Speaking over the phone from New Delhi, AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said he could not comment as it would breach the confidentiality clause. Das had joined a little over a month before the 15-year agreement worth Rs 700 crore was signed on December 9, 2010.
“The AIFF has been plain lucky that its current commercial partners haven’t exercised this right,” said an AIFF official.
One former federation official said the idea of a separate league germinated before IMG-Reliance came on board subsuming most of the previous marketing agreement AIFF had signed in 2005. “The success of the first Indian Premier League (IPL) got a lot of marketing people thinking about short leagues and the AIFF’s former partners did explore the possibility of holding one,” he said. But the official said he didn’t remember this being in the old deal. Another former AIFF official too said as much. Neither wanted to be quoted because during their time at AIFF they were not authorised to speak on this.
For this term, the ISL is seeking a qualifying berth for the 2019 AFC Cup. It has been mentioned in the AIFF’s proposal to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). The AIFF has also asked that the 2017-18 I-League champions be given the right to represent India in the Asian Champions League qualifiers.
That means the I-League remains India’s top competition but only for so long as the AIFF’s commercial partners don’t want to change it.
Before signing this deal and despite being financially stressed, the AIFF had negotiated with its current partners for almost one year. It had set up a task force comprising senior members of the executive committee — some of whom are still key officials — to scrutinise the terms of engagement before the agreement that included the possibility of the I-League being thrown off its top perch was ratified.