Rift in Indian football

A storm is brewing in India's top-flight football, a glamorous and acrimonious world that encompasses Asia's richest man, the cream of Bollywood and a self-styled former gangster.

Mukesh Ambani, the billionaire who commands the Reliance Industries corporate empire that owns the Indian Super League (ISL), is facing opposition to his family's dominance from some executives in the Indian football association (AIFF) and clubs.

The outcome of the power struggle could determine whether India would ever become a world force in the game and play in or even host a World Cup.

Ambani's holding group launched the ISL, an elite competition of newly created teams, in 2014 with the aim of attracting investment and big global names, much like the Indian Premier League has in cricket.

However, tensions have been building over who ultimately calls the shots: the AIFF, which technically governs football at all levels, or Ambani's group, which owns the top league of 10 teams.

This year, before the Covid-19 outbreak, Kushal Das, an AIFF executive, wrote to Martin Bain, the Ambani lieutenant who heads Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), a Reliance company that owns the league.

He pointed out that the national coach, employed by AIFF, has complained that the enlisting of so many foreign recruits could hold back the development of home-grown players.

In the March e-mail exchange, Das said the governing body had the right to limit the number of foreign players allowed to compete in the ISL.

No, retorted Bain. The AIFF backed down for this season.

FSDL claims the ISL has raised money for a disorderly and under-invested sector and brought in marquee players such as Italy's Alessandro del Piero and France's Robert Pires.

Ambani's wife Nita, FSDL's chairperson and the public face of the league, has expressed hope that India will qualify for the 2026 World Cup and one day host the event.

But the Ambanis' influence is resented by some club owners in India's traditional football league (I-League). They say the ISL is sucking attention and investment from the rest of the game and stunting its long-term development.

"This is a hostile takeover if there ever was one. They basically own football," said Ranjit Bajaj, a self-described former gangster who found redemption in football and is a prominent figure in the game.

"It's really sad," added the man who took his Punjab side to the 2018 I-League title.

Reliance bailed out the cash-strapped AIFF a decade ago, pledging around US$140 million over 15 years in return for sponsorship, licensing rights and running the ISL.

The AIFF remains dependent on the deal money. It sent six e-mails to Reliance executives between May and October last year saying payments of US$6 million had not been received.

The ISL itself is proving neither hugely popular nor lucrative - a rarity for an Ambani venture. Stadium attendances have halved over the past six years.

Industry veterans say Ambani erred by excluding India's original clubs and creating a tournament without promotion or relegation.

The ISL's original eight clubs were owned by Bollywood stars like Ranbir Kapoor, cricket champions including Sachin Tendulkar and prominent businessmen, though several have since left. Two new teams joined in 2017.

Ambani's group projected in 2014 that clubs would be profitable within five years.

However, none of the original eight clubs had broken even by March last year, save for Bengaluru FC, with about US$234,000 in profit.

FSDL has significant control over the clubs. The clubs must select coaches from a league-approved list, cannot sell shares without approval and must spend at least US$500,000 a season on marketing.

Sports commentator Novy Kapadia said the league's future depended on billionaires continuing to bankroll their clubs, especially as the next season could be delayed and played without foreign players or spectators due to the coronavirus.

"The hit will be very severe," he said, but added the league would continue "as long as there are enough rich people in India to burn money".


"This is a hostile takeover if there ever was one. They basically own football. It's really sad."

- Ranjit Bajaj, a prominent figure in Indian football, on the Ambanis' influence


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