Bengaluru FC CEO Parth Jindal has called for a unified league, with promotion and relegation, while stressing on the need for "financial sacrifices" by all stakeholders in Indian football -- the All India Football Federation's (AIFF) marketing and commercial partners IMG-Reliance (IMG-R), the franchise-based Indian Super League (ISL) clubs, and the clubs playing in the I-League.
"The ground reality of Indian football today is that every single member of Indian football is losing money. And everybody is losing money hand over fist," he said. "ISL teams are losing far more money than I-League teams. We were in the I-League two years ago. We know the numbers in I-League, and we now know the numbers in ISL."
"The ISL organisers' view is that if you want to come into ISL, there's a cost involved, because they are trying to do things in a much bigger and more professional way. The I-League teams are saying we are already burning money, we don't have the ability to burn more money. It's very easy for me to say there should be a unified league, but everyone has to sacrifice. I am ready to sacrifice."
Jindal, who believes fairytale wins like those of Aizawl FC or Chennai City FC would be good for the ISL, has also called for AIFF to be "transparent" about their roadmap for unification of the ISL with the I-League, especially to give clarity to the clubs playing the latter.
"My dream is [for] a unified league, for sure. I think there needs to be a top division, a second division, and there needs to be promotion and relegation," he told ESPN. "We want Aizawl stories in the ISL. We want a Real Kashmir story in the ISL. We want Chennai City story in the ISL."
"We were the Chennai City four (sic) years ago when BFC won I-League in our inaugural season," said Jindal, reflecting on BFC's I-League triumph in 2013-14. "Nobody thought we had a shot in hell to win the I-League and we won it. What needs to happen is there needs to be a unified league. For that to happen, financial sacrifices will need to be made."
The ISL came into being in 2014, and was originally an eight-team tournament that preceded the I-League, which continues to be the recognised top division of Indian football. BFC switched over from the I-League to the ISL ahead of the 2017-18 season, when ISL was expanded to 10 teams, with BFC and Jamshedpur FC being added to the existing sides. It also opened up an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) slot for the ISL champions, one that had been previously reserved for the Federation Cup winners. "It was one of the toughest decisions in my life to move from the I-League to the ISL, because our philosophy has always been that we need to play in the premier tournament or league in the country," said Jindal. "We want to represent India in Asia and that's always been our dream."
The ISL was also in talks with Kolkata clubs Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to include them in the league in 2017 itself, but discussions fell through owing to issues such as a franchise fee reported to be INR 15 crore (approx. $ 2.2 million), proposed change of base to cities outside Kolkata, and discussions over changing the jersey colours of the teams. Both clubs might join the ISL in 2019 yet, but there are reports of major disagreements over a proposed merger of Kolkata-based ISL club ATK with Bagan, especially as it might impact the latter's name, logo and relationship with its fanbase, cultivated over 130 years now.
"No I-League team today is in a position to make more loss, and an ISL team will think if they are making so much loss, why would they allow an I-League team in without paying the franchise fee?" he said. "They [AIFF and their marketing and commercial partners IMG-Reliance] could say, 'Hey, listen. It's not going to happen today. It will happen in 2022, or 2023.'
Since 2017-18, AIFF has brought together the ISL and I-League teams under the Super Cup, though the original plan of rewarding the champion with an AFC slot hasn't materialised yet. Ironically, BFC went from reigning Federation Cups to losing the ISL final to winning the inaugural Super Cup in 2018, thus missing out on AFC action for the first time since 2015 this year. The latest edition got underway on Friday with former I-League champions Minerva Punjab not turning up for their opening match in the qualifiers stage against FC Pune City, and Jindal believes "all stakeholders need to come together" to work out a viable road map.
"I think what's irritating a lot of people is the unpredictability of what's going to happen. There's a cloud over our head -- not the ISL teams' heads, but on the I-League guys. They don't know what's happening to them next year."
Jindal believes the AIFF must sit with the I-League teams and explain their roadmap for the future, and take in suggestions and comments from them in the process. "I think what everyone is asking for is transparency," he said. "If we get a transparent roadmap, I think everyone will be happier."