Bengaluru FC became the first-ever Indian football club to play in the AFC Cup final back in 2016. This was before they entered the riches of the Indian Super League (ISL)/ Football India League and made it the farthest in Asian football just by playing in the I-League. The Blues making it to the final was not an isolated incident.
Dempo SC and East Bengal FC have also made it all the way to the AFC Cup semi-finals back in 2008 and 2013 respectively. With the beginning of the ISL and the instant cash flow in Indian football, one might think the Indian football clubs would take it one step forward in Asia. Well, that has certainly not been the case so far.
Football India league: ATK and Mohun Bagan
The merger between ATK and Mohun Bagan left several ambiguities to figure out for both sets of fans regarding the identity of the newly merged entity. However, what was made abundantly clear was that the ATK Mohun Bagan FC (ATKMB) management was hell-bent on making it big in Asia.
They did live up to that intent by bringing on the best Indian contingent one can afford in the football India league followed by the best foreign recruits. The likes of Liston Colaco, Joni Kauko, and Hugo Boumous in the midfield made it India’s best club line-up on paper by a large margin. However, what followed was unexpected but not unthinkable.
ATKMB took on Uzbek side Nasaf in the AFC Cup Inter-Zone Semi-Final, which is equivalent to the quarter-finals in the new format. The Mariners were taken by surprise by the sheer quality of the Uzbek side and went down 5-0 at halftime. Nasaf, thankfully, took it easy and only scored one more to finish 6-0 as the Mariners went crashing out of the AFC Cup.
Reasons for debacle
The ATKMB debacle in Asia can be connected to several reasons. One of the primary reasons is the difference in quality. Mainly between the Indian contingent at the club level in India with the domestic players in the rest of Asia. No matter how lavishly the Football India league and Indian clubs spend on foreigners. The ultimate difference in quality between sides reflects in terms of Indian players.
The Indian player pool is simply not good enough for Indian Clubs to chase Asian glory. The Indian players are paid in crores in the ISL, thanks to hypermarket inflation. The inflation in salaries mean that the Indian players simply do not need to go to European leagues. (Due to better pay in domestic shores). Adding to that the presence of five/six foreigners in the ISL has also not helped develop Indian players over the years. However, the same is expected to change. As clubs will now have the option to field four foreigners in the ISL next season. All predictions and betting tips for the ISL matches will be useful for fans to place bets on the competition.
The issue with football India league calendar
Another key reason behind the result at Nasaf was the structure of the football India league calendar. Thanks to Star India being one of the co-owners of India’s top division. ISL, the football India league will never manage to get its own independent window. Star India is occupied with the likes of ICC T20 World Cup, IPL, and Pro Kabaddi throughout the year. Meaning, ISL has to be conducted in the rest of the yearly window to avoid the clash of audience on sports television.
While all Asian football leagues run in sync with Asian competitions, the ISL still follows the European club calendar. This means that the Indian football season ends within March. Clubs touted for matches in the AFC Cup and Asian Champions League months have nothing to play for after the domestic league has ended. The lack of continuity between games for Indian clubs means that the players are simply not in regular match practice to take on the best in Asia.
ISL and I-League as parallel leagues
Adding to the causes, it is to be noted that since the ISL and I-League have been running as parallel leagues, the Indian player pool has increased. However, the parallel leagues have reduced the capability of players to play matches year around. During the first three years of the ISL, Indian players could play three months in the I-League, three months in the ISL, and two more months in invitational tournaments like the Bordoloi Trophy, Durand Cup, Rovers Cup, and IFA Shield.
The structure before 2017 allowed for around seven months of football for a single football player with around sixty matches. The same is not the case anymore. ISL begins in late November and wraps up by February. Meaning just three months of professional football for an Indian football player.
Why fewer competitive matches?
The lack of matches, however, seemed to have not swayed ISL sides. Although Kerala Blasters and FC Goa have decided to play in the Durand Cup. The other ISL sides simply have not played any football throughout the year in past seasons except the ISL. ATKMB went a little further by terming the Calcutta Football League and Durand Cup as “unprofessional” tournaments, thus provoking a classist and brazen attitude to football India league & club football tournaments, barring the cash-rich ISL.
Lack of quality Indian player pool, fewer competitive matches in club football, and a football calendar out of sync with Asia have hampered Indian football on the Asian stage. It will continue to do so if things do not change sooner than later.