The I-League: Introduction
“Football is one of the most popular sports in the world. Unfortunately, in India, it hasn’t got its financial due or gained advertisers’ attention,” says famed Indian footballer Bhaichung Bhutia.
Bhaichung’s sentiment is a familiar one to many football players, officials, and fans across India. Despite skyrocketing popularity throughout the country, professional support for the sport has traditionally been middling at best.
The explicit purpose of the I-League has been to solve that problem.
The I-League: History
Football has been played in India for over 150 years, but it is only relatively recently that it has come to be organized to international standards.
The I-League is controlled by the All India Football Foundation (AIFF), the official manager of all professional football in the country. The AIFF was founded in 1937, out of a desire to unite what had until then been a largely regional sport.
Prior to the AIFF the “face” of Indian football was West Bengal’s Indian Football Association (IFA), founded in 1893.
But the IFA enjoyed limited influence outside of the Bengal region, and its administration was almost entirely composed of Englishmen. Both factors led to strong disillusionment with the IFA.
In order to rectify this issue, the IFA gradually came together with other regional football associations to form the AIFF, in an attempt to represent all Indian footballers under a single national banner.
The AIFF has experienced its own problems over the years. While it finally provided all Indian footballers with an organization that could represent them internationally, the AIFF did not become a FIFA affiliate until 1948.
Furthermore, the Indian team has consistently underperformed at international events, ranking 143rd in the world and 28th in Asia, below much smaller countries like the Maldives.
India has only been invited to the FIFA World Cup once, in 1950, and the team elected not to attend for cost reasons. Since then India has struggled even to qualify for the Asian Cup, let alone the World Cup.
The lack of strong league support has often been cited as a strong factor in these poor performances. Steven Constantine, coach of the Indian national football team, puts it this way:
“You see kids playing football in the street with no shoes everywhere in this country but there’s no development at youth level. That, and coach education, are reasons why we are not as advanced as we should be.”
The first professional league formed by the AIFF was the National Football League (NFL), founded in 1996. The NFL represented the first wholly national football competition in India, dedicated to transforming the game into a fully realized professional sport.
However, the NFL did not last long. Faced with a sharp decline in popularity less than a decade later, the AIFF chose to relaunch and rebrand the NFL in time for the 2007-2008 season, transforming it into the I-League.
The I-League: At a Glance
Predecessor: National Football League (NFL)
Total Number of Teams: 15
First Championship Won (I-League): Dempo Sports Club
First Championship Won (NFL): JCT Football Club
Most Championships Won: Dempo Sports Club, 3
Top Goal-Scorer (Lifetime): Odafe Onyeka Okolie, 126
Top Goal-Scorer (Single Season): Ranti Martins Soleye, 30
Highest Salary: Odafe Onyeka Okolie, Rs 2 crore for a 1-year contract
The I-League: Future
The I-League made numerous changes intended to incentivize more robust competition. These included greater prize money, subsidies for hiring new administrative staff, and more leeway in fielding foreign players.
Time will tell if these changes will allow the I-League to be more successful than its predecessor. Some positive signs have emerged, however.
Several spectacular performances in recent years, both domestically and at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, have helped to boost the I-League’s popularity.
Recent signings of international superstars such as Costa Rica’s Carlos Hernández and Lebanon’s Bilal Najjarin to I-League teams have further raised its profile. The converse has also been true; famed Indian captain Sunil Chhetri made headlines when he was recruited by Kansas City in 2010, and again by Portugal in 2012.
While the precise future of the I-League remains in the balance, it seems fairly clear that India’s premier football competition is here to stay.