On Saturday, Chennaiyin FC lifted their second Indian Super League (ISL) title by defeating Bengaluru FC (BFC) 3-2 in the final at the Sree Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru.
After the match, debate over the ISL’s format resurfaced when BFC goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu declared his team as the actual champions in a television interview. “I believe we won the league phase,” a visibly frustrated Sandhu said, “and so we are the champions.” Earlier this year, Sandhu had also tweeted using the hashtag #LeagueHotiTohKyaHota (what if this was actually a league?) when BFC were well clear at the top.
ISL is played in two phases. A league phase sees all teams play each other twice, home and away, in a round-robin format to decide the top four. And then the playoffs phase, in which the top four play in two legs of the semi finals and then one-off final to decide the winners. This means the reward for finishing first or fourth in the league after a lengthy phase is the same—a place in the semis—which has never sat well with many observers.
BFC, in their first season in ISL, have little right to complain at this point. The competition’s format has not changed since its inception. And strangely enough, none of the league toppers in previous seasons (Chennaiyin FC, FC Goa and Mumbai City FC) won the trophy, thus making this end-of-season discussion an annual ritual.
This year, however, the debate deserves more attention than before. For no club in ISL’s short history had dominated the league standings the way BFC did: at the end of the 18-match-long league phase, they were eight points clear from the second-placed team. In previous seasons, the points difference at the top was one or two, making it difficult for the team on top to declare itself as the league’s best. In fact, since 1996, when semi-professional or professional league football was introduced in India, only Goan club Dempo, which won the 2009-10 I-League by 11 points in a 26-game season, had dominated a league table more than BFC did.
The maximum gap between the first and fourth positions in the previous ISL seasons was a mere four points. In ISL-4, fourth-placed FC Pune City were 10 points behind leaders BFC.
Also, the stakes this season were much higher. For the first time, the Asian Confederation (AFC) had approved a “special dispensation” to allow ISL champions to play in the 2019 AFC Cup qualifiers. This makes losing the ISL-4 final worse than previous finals. A particularly painful double whammy for a team that had gone unbeaten in 11 ISL matches (15 in all competitions) heading into the season’s final 90 minutes. All it took was one bad day after four months of disciplined football to lose the chance to play at the continental level.
Across the globe, countries use different formats to crown their football league champions. As the official site of US’s Major League Soccer (MLS) pointed out in 2015—perhaps in defence of its own ISL-like format—over 28% of the 126 leagues across countries of six confederations crowned a champion via another phase after the initial league phase. This does not necessarily mean a knockout round like in the ISL.
Belgium’s top division, for instance, features 16 teams, top six of which play in a breakaway mini-league for the championship. Uruguay’s top tier has two league phases—Apertura (Opening Championship) and Clausura (Closing Championship)— and takes into account individual phase winners as well as the toppers of the aggregate table to crown champions.
Meanwhile, Australia’s A-League transitions into the knockout phase similar to the ISL but it doesn’t ignore the table toppers. The winner of the league phase is called “premier” while the winner of the final is called “champion”—and both are awarded continental spots. At the very least, this is one format the ISL can look to learn from though it does not have more than one AFC competition slot to play with.
ISL’s format is driven by TV ratings and tweaked to its audience’s understanding of sport. From cricket to hockey, or any other Olympic sport, India is used to competitions ending in a final. But there’s little doubt that crowning a champion on the basis of an entire season’s results is fairer than doing so based on a mere 90 minutes of football—which is why the world’s top leagues (English, Spanish, Italian, German and French) have only one phase. The longer the ISL, the more unfair it will become to its league toppers.
Even cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL), the messiah of Indian sports leagues, acknowledged the flaws of its knockout format seven years ago and tweaked it to give advantage to the top two finishers over the third and fourth positions.
It’s about time the ISL made some changes too. There’s too much at stake.