I-League 2017-18: Future of AIFF's developmental side Indian Arrows uncertain despite initial success this season

Eight matches, two victories, one draw and five defeats. Luis Norton de Matos’ Indian Arrows have put up a few spirited performances in this season of the I-league that includes a victory against the much-fancied Shillong Lajong and a 1-1 draw against a giant of Indian football called Mohun Bagan. The Arrows, comprising teenagers, sit at the eighth spot in the league, but have shown that they can more than just compete in a senior-level league.

File image of Indian Arrows players celebrating a goal. Twitter/@ILeagueOfficial

File image of Indian Arrows players celebrating a goal. Twitter/@ILeagueOfficial

Leaving the victories and defeats aside, the most exciting part of the Arrows this season has been the way the team played its football. Midfielders controlled the game. There were quick, short passes. Wingers were dribbling the ball and crossing to the strikers. There has been a certain style and panache to their game which is a rarity in Indian football, and that’s why it’s refreshing to witness them in action.

There are quite a few matches that are yet to be played in the I-League this season, but it’s fair to say that the Arrows have been a welcome addition to the league. But despite the positives, the future of the team, and by that it means the survival of the side post the current season, is clouded under uncertainty.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) handed out professional contracts to players who represented India at last year’s U-17 World Cup along with a few U-19 players and wanted them to play the I-league for Indian Arrows – a revival of the former youth development team called Pailan Arrows. The idea behind the move was to give game time to the teenagers at the highest level and to ensure the players don't fall into oblivion.

The Arrows project did make sense because the AIFF invested on the development of the select group in light of the U-17 World Cup. When FIFA declared India as the hosts of the showpiece world event, the AIFF, apart from the job of conducting the event smoothly, was also faced with the daunting task of building a team. India are not traditionally good at football and there was no proper grassroot structure to identify talented players. The country had to build a team from scratch to compete at the world level.

They did came up with a team and players were prepared for the event with a series of exposure trips abroad, where they played against competitive teams. At the U-17 World Cup, not much was expected of them except to put up a fighting display. They lost all their group matches but the team managed to score one thanks to Jeakson Singh's powerful header against Columbia.

The various exposure trips and specific training modules for the U-17 World Cup made the select group of players stand out in the country. The youngsters got a lot of help in terms of facilities and coaching, and therefore, the Arrows club was revived again so that the players could still be together and play matches against quality teams.

But the chances of the team featuring beyond the current season is in doubt because of the country's current football structure. At present, India has two professional football leagues – I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL) – and for quite sometime, there have been talks about a possible merger. Last week, Union sports minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore confirmed in the Rajya Sabha that a merger is very much on the cards for the next season.

"AIFF along with all its stakeholders has planned to restructure the club football model in India wherein there would be one unified league at the top followed by lower division leagues namely, League 1 and League 2 in line with global best practices," Rathore informed.

I-League, where legacy clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan ply their trade, has been the country's top division football league, with the concept of relegation and promotion. The ISL was started as a city-based franchise tournament backed by the AIFF and IMG-Reliance and the first three season lasted little over two months. This season, the ISL became a five-month long tournament and the league champion will get an AFC Cup qualification spot.

Now Indian Arrows is a development side of the AIFF and if the merger does take place next season, then first division football will find it tough to allot a space for the Arrows. According to a report, AIFF vice-president Subrata Datta proposed a plan for the unified league in which 18 teams would take part and it will run for seven months. Out of those 18, the 10 ISL clubs have a strong case to play in the top league due to technicalities like franchise fees and the absence of promotion and relegation system. That leaves eight spots for the 10 current I-League clubs. Legacy clubs like the two Kolkata behemoths and others teams like Aizawl FC, Shillong Lajong, Minerva Punjab FC, who have been competing at the top level for past few seasons will mostly feature in the unified league.

There's also I-League second division from where the champions are promoted to the first division. This season's second division champions will also come into the picture when the unified league is formed.

This season, Kerala’s Gokulam FC got into the I-League due to the direct entry system prevailing in the league. Indian Arrows could get into the top-division league if the AIFF and other stakeholders can reach a consensus on the matter, but if the plan is to start a proper league with global best practices then the concept of direct entry doesn't make sense.

If the Arrows fail to play in the top division then the only alternative for them is to play in the second division. It has been reported that the Arrows players have signed contracts till the end of 2019-20 season, except for Jeakson Singh, Anwar Ali and Nongdamba Naorem, who are on loan from Minerva Punjab. Playing in the second division would ensure game time for the players but the quality of opposition won't be the same as that they faced this season.

Dheeraj Singh, who was India's goalkeeper at the U-17 World Cup, did not sign a new contract with the Arrows in order to find opportunities in Europe. There are chances that some of the top clubs in India might want to sign players from the Arrows next season and Minerva might recall their players. So the core of the team will not remain the same. In that scenario, a new set of youngsters will be picked, but surely their quality when compared to the batch before will differ quite significantly.

Next season is crucial for Indian football as the sport will hope to get a proper shape and structure and at the same time, the AIFF will also have a lot of thinking to do about the future of Indian Arrows.

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Updated Date: Jan 06, 2018 20:07 PM

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