At a time when many I-League clubs are unclear about their future, former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia says there would also be a "big question mark" over the future of the Indian Super League (ISL) unless it accommodates clubs which have "history, passion and fanbase".
Bhutia also advocated introduction of a promotion-relegation system if the ISL wants to attract more eyeballs.
"For ISL also, it's very important that clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan are there. It's not just the future of I-League. The future of ISL is also in big doubt. There is a big question mark," Bhutia told IANS in an interview.
Eight I-League clubs, including East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, recently wrote to All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel requesting a meeting to "seek answers" regarding the league's future and complaining about "interference" of the apex body's marketing partner Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) in the sport's decision making.
The letter said the I-League teams also wish to discuss potential relegation to the second division in Indian football, with ISL "all set to be branded the top league of the country."
"I think until and unless you have teams like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan and some other teams as well who are very passionate, and have the kind of fan following you don't have in the top league... then the excitement does not really come in. So the ISL also benefits bringing clubs from I-League up. Because I-League clubs have history, passion and fan following," said Bhutia, who had played for both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
Asked about the I-League's lesser lights in terms of bank balance like former champions Aizawl FC, holders Minerva Punjab FC and Chennai City FC, the last one now on the cusp of winning the title, Bhutia said the concern over paying the hefty franchise fee for ISL would be gone once there is a promotion-relegation system.
"So it's also important to bring relegation and promotion. If you go on promotion and relegation, you don't have to pay franchise fee," he said.
Talking about table-toppers Chennai's dream run this season, Bhutia said it's great to see a team from Tamil Nadu doing so well despite the state not having much of a footballing history.
"I think in a way it's wonderful that a team from South (India) is going to win, especially from Tamil Nadu, which is not known for being a football state. I think this inspiration is going to motivate lot of footballers there."
Bhutia also expressed his disappointment at East Bengal once again coming so close to winning their maiden crown but frittering away the advantage at the business end of the season.
"I personally as an ex-player am very disappointed they could not win the I-League even this year, despite coming so close. I thought they could make it this year.
"But then you don't also lose hope because there is a new company that has come in. They have a new coach. So I see a great future and hope. But they need to trust coaches and players and can't be doing what they have been doing in the past," he signed off.
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