'Clubs need to evolve or die': Constantine and Chhetri add voice to clamour for one league

First was the news that one of India's most respected football clubs, Pune FC, was folding. Then Sunil Chhetri said he's 'all for one league' and fellow Indian defender Anas Edathodika openly stated that the I-League and the Indian Super League should merge.

Then All India Football Federation general secretary Kushal Das confirmed the plans for a merger, And finally Stephen Constantine, India’s head coach, unequivocally has said the country needs just one football league if the national team is going to improve.

The clamour is rising with every passing day. It's almost unavoidable now. India will have one league in the next few years, and the only opposition seems to be from the erstwhile football powers of the country — the traditionalists, the Bengali clubs, the ones who seem to be stuck in the past, refusing to acknowledge that football has moved on.

That includes the Sports Authority of India.

"Today, apart from a couple of events, there are very few domestic tournaments, especially at the junior level. Fine we have the ISL and others but they are fairly new and amateur and cannot replace the old tournaments," SAI director general Injeti Srinivas was quoted as saying by IANS on 24 August.

 Clubs need to evolve or die: Constantine and Chhetri add voice to clamour for one league

Chhetri will play in the ISL for the first time this year after missing out on the inaugural season due to Bengaluru FC's refusal to release players for the tournament. AIFF

Constantine, who admits he's a traditionalist himself, has harsh words for those who refuse to move on: "Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are huge traditionally but what have they done for Indian football lately? It’s 2015, you either move on or you die. If the Bagans of the world cannot step up, then they will fall behind. But you cannot hold the whole country back for one or two or three clubs who don’t want to change. Football is a modern game," he told Firstpost during an exclusive interview in Pune.

Bagan and East Bengal are struggling financially and newest I-League entrant Bharat FC is rumoured to be closing down operations. The biggest jolt though, is the reported shutting down of Pune FC: a club that was among India's most professionally run setups.

"It's sad, 40 of my fellow players won't have jobs tomorrow,” Chhetri, India's top-scorer and current captain, told Firstpost during ISL club Mumbai City FC's kit launch in Mumbai on 22 August. “It hurts. We need to find a solution. Call it whatever you want, but India needs one league. The AIFF, the ISL and the I-League should sit down together and discuss this, work out a solution. We can then have a cup competition like England has the FA Cup,"

It isn’t hard put two and two together: the ISL has captured Indian football players' hearts and they want to play alongside stars like Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda, John Arne Riise, Elano and Simao Sabrosa. They want to earn as well, and play in a professionally run league.

Chhetri will play in the ISL for the first time this year after missing out on the inaugural season due to Bengaluru FC's refusal to release players for the tournament.

"Forget about the money, what impressed me most about the ISL auction was how professionally everything was organised -- from the contracts to the medical to the eventual bidding," Chhetri, who went to Mumbai City for Rs 1.20 crore, said.

India coach Constantine didn't specify whether merging the ISL and the I-League was the only way forward. For him, a Major League Soccer (MLS) type conference system would also work well in India (something adopted by I-League's 2nd division from this year) — but at the end of the day, it came down to to the simple logic of having one season-long league.

"I don’t care who is in the league. I care we have a single season based on FIFA calendar so that national team can do something," he said.

Constantine said he had huge respect for India's football powerhouses, but I-League clubs clearly need to realise that football needs money to run. And television too. The I-League, despite AIFF's efforts, has failed to develop into a marketable product.

"I think a lot of the I-League have not done enough, certainly zero in youth development. There is only one solution – a single Indian league. How we do it: MLS type or we have a promotion relegation, I don’t know. But we need a structure: youth development, the media, all that. And the support the Bengali clubs have, it’s for me unbelievable that they are not using all the pulling power they have.”

With AIFF also confirming that a merger is being discussed, it remains to be seen how they do it. For Constantine, a three-month league with matches every day doesn't cut it. There needs to be more spacing so audience interest is retained.

"For any league you need television. But if you look at what Star Sports is doing with the ISL, it's over-saturation. You don’t get Premier League games every day. You need to tease the people. Look at the NFL (USA's National Football League): 16 games in a year but all those games are full and properly marketed. At the moment, having a three-month league with games every three days (for a team) is certainly not the way forward," Constantine said.

While the big clubs broke away to form the Premier League in England with the support of broadcaster BSkyB, it must be noted that there was already a product in place — and an unparalleled football culture in the country. In India, the ISL is slowly developing into a product with the backing of IMG-Reliance and broadcaster Star Sports, but Constantine is adamant that interest will pique only if the league is spread out.

"The Premier League already had a product, we don’t have a product. If I was Star Sports, I would think: would I not be making more money if I spread it out. Would there not be greater interest for longer by spreading out. The answer is absolutely yes, and if you don’t believe me, ask BskyB.”

Firstpost spoke to Bagan secretary Anjan Mitra for an earlier feature and he was defiant that the club will survive — but that is far from certain. If India's football superpowers fail to change and adhere to AIFF's tough merger decisions in the next few years, they will sound their own death-knell. Football is cruel that way.

The writer tweets @TheFalseNo9

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Updated Date: Aug 27, 2015 19:02:30 IST