When Reliance partnered IMG, and when IMG-R acquired the marketing rights owned by the AIFF I felt genuine hope for Indian football. The games governing body here had joined forces with the world’s top sports management company and one of India’s most successful and aggressive corporate giants. What could go wrong?
Now, two years or so down the line, there are rumors of discontent and discord between Reliance and IMG, and of a lack of understanding, leadership and vision. Whether this is fair and accurate or not, as the IFA and CMG launch PLS amid much genuine excitement that reaches far beyond West Bengal, most of India is left wondering what happened to the rest of us. Why has nothing changed? Everywhere else in India seems to have become immersed in a vacuum of nothingness.
The problem that seems to have floored IMG-R and the AIFF is how to square the circle of established I-League clubs and a franchise structure. You could throw in the issue of no adequate infrastructure and mix it with an already overcrowded calendar and you can easily become submerged with the idea that the whole structure and history of football in India defeats any possibility of meaningful change. ‘What to do?’ would seem an appropriate tag line.
The PLS is a gamechanger. Its long-term future is uncertain as of now, however it’s already changed the landscape of football in India forever. CMG wanted Lionel Messi playing in Kolkata so they brought over Argentina and Venezuela as the cannon fodder. IMG-R and the AIFF responded defensively by making it problematic to host a match in India between two foreign teams. The consequence was that FC Bayern played against an AIFF ‘India XI’. The PLS has brought a similarly defensive response: reluctant tolerance mixed with doubts about the concept and viability, and vague assurances as to their own project, still in the planning. PLS pressures IMG-R and the AIFF to deliver something more meaningful…something in fact.
The IFA has always been symbolic of the challenges facing would-be Indian football revolutionaries. A powerful self-focused State Association that saw itself and its competitions as more relevant and important than the national league. For many Bengali’s it was more important to win the Kolkata Super League than be champions of India. To some extent Kolkata and the IFA have been pushed towards this thinking by the way that football dominates there in a way that most of the rest of India hasn’t (so far) replicated. Now they’ve done it again by launching their own self-contained Premier League for soccer.
In finding a way forward for India as a whole the challenge for IMG-R and the AIFF is to find a formula that takes the realities as they are, and create a structure that allows corporate investment and addresses the weakness of the infrastructure. There is an appetite for corporate investment in to football, providing the structure and vision is right. There is an enthusiasm among the new generation of football fanatics – and sports fans more generally – for an exciting, glamorous and star-studded football format. All the ingredients are there for IMG-R and the AIFF to create a real gamechanger of their own at a pan-India level. Without this PLS is a ticking bomb.