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Killing the I-League Softly

India’s premier football league fights a battle of survival with Goan teams failing to attract crowds. Was the Indian Super League created to destroy the I-League?

I-league is currently underway with three Goan teams Salgaocar FC, Sporting Clube de Goa and Dempo FC participating. However, a sound of silence echoes around the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatorda.

The absence of a partisan Goan crowd might sound ideal for the visiting teams, but for the home teams and the I-league it is a matter of grave concern. The Goan fans who were queuing up to buy tickets for the Indian Super League (ISL) and creating a ruckus for non availability of the same for ISL matches have suddenly gone missing. The vast empty spaces in the stands at PJN Fatorda speak about a football crazy state no longer enthralled about its I-league teams.  It’s like witnessing the realistation of a prophecy, as if the big-money ISL were created to kill the I–league, albeit softly.

Sunando Dhar, CEO I-league says, “Goa has obviously been very disappointing in terms of numbers. We’ve spoken to the clubs and they’ve initiated some marketing activities. We hope Goan people come out and support their teams.”

“ISL had lots of passionate supporters for the Goan team. After that the loyalties are divided so that could be one of the reasons for the low turnout at matches. Last season we had better crowds in Goa, so it is strange to figure out what went wrong as Goans are very passionate about their football,” Dhar added

Goan football faithful were seen chanting Forca Goa and routing for FC Goa during the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League. However, all those fans seem to have gone into exile only to return for the next edition of ISL. I-league has failed to excite them as it continues to crave for entertainment & funds and is forgotten by most Goan football fans. I-league clubs were optimistic that the ISL impact would benefit the I-league. However two months into the league that hope is fast fading.

So where have all the fans gone and why this indifferent attitude towards the I-league?

Daniel Fernandes, an ardent FC Goa fan from Panjim  says, “We had 4 I-league clubs in Goa, however I did not support any of them as there is no emotional connect for me. With FC Goa it was different, and it managed to unite the entire state.”

“The I-league clubs need to take initiatives to revive the league and build a fan base which they have failed to do for decades now. I really think it’s time the family names are changed so that there is an emotional connect with the fan and the club,” suggested Fernandes.

Carol D’Costa, of Margao, echoes the same sentiments. “I love football and I don’t mind going to the stands to watch Indian football. However I’m not passionate about any of the Goan I-league clubs.”

He pointed to I-League clubs like Bengaluru FC, Pune FC & Shillong Lajong, which have large fan followings and said, “imagine if they were named after their owners for example Jindal FC or Piramal FC”.

The I-League clubs in Goa never attracted a great many fans, media and sponsors and the introduction of the ISL could well be the nail in the coffin for the I-league here. The writing was on the wall for Goan I-league clubs as newbies like Bengaluru FC & Pune FC set new trends, with the professional set ups and spending capacity.

Varun Carvalho, Singer/Composer of the FC Goa anthem ‘Forca Goa’ and the man responsible for engaging crowds in the ISL matches with the support of his band, feels “the reason for the success of ISL was because every Goan could connect with the team and the loyalties were united. Entertainment, foreign stars and quality football on the field also played a huge role.”

“I-league has very little to offer in terms of entertainment and excitement. Besides that there is no branding and marketing of the I-league, the quality of the game ain’t that great as well, so it is no surprise that the fans do not hit the stadium” added Varun.

I-league has little funding and the All India Football Federation seems disinterested in promoting the league centrally, with the onus solely on the clubs to revive the league’s fortunes. It makes it especially difficult for the Goan clubs to spend money when there is no return, and many owners have gone on record to say that they are doing it solely for the love of the game.

Highlighting the problems, Sunando Dhar, CEO I-league says, “ISL was a huge success because the central marketing team did a great job but for us to replicate it in the I-league is difficult, as there are resources problems.”

“If the quality of the game is good, crowds will definitely turn up. All other marketing activities have a short-term impact. It’s the quality on the pitch that matters”, concluded Dhar.

But one senior official of an I-league club who didn’t want to be named out of fear of AIFF reprisals disagreed, saying, “If the AIFF keeps banking on good football and does nothing to promote the I-league it will slowly but surely die.” The AIFF has silenced voices that have spoken out against the ISL, and

many believe Churchill Bros got the axe for bad mouthing the I-league.

“It is true, the ISL was formed to kill the I-league and the AIFF is making sure its mission is accomplished by completely neglecting the I-league,” added the senior official.

Goan teams have done well on the field and there is nothing wrong with the quality of football. However, they have not yet succeeded in rekindling enthusiasm amongst fans, which is not possible without the support and financial backing for the I-league from the AIFF.