New Delhi: Former captain and current advisor to All India Football Federation, Bhaichung Bhutia has admitted that the eight-year old I-League has been a failure and feels that the "successful" Indian Super League should be given a few more seasons before a possible merger of the two.
Bhutia, Indian football's poster boy for a long time before his retirement in 2011 after playing more than 100 international matches, said I-League failed to attract the crowd and the media, while the two season old ISL could do just that.
"Let's be honest, I-League was not successful and that's why ISL came. Football fans were not coming to watch I-League matches, the media do not want to cover them (I-League matches)," Bhutia said at an event organised by Confederation of Indian Industries here last night.
"Had I-League been successful, the ISL would not have been there. I-League failed and that's why ISL was started and we have seen that it (ISL) has been a success so far," he said at the CII Soccer Fest Star Night when asked about the talk in the official circles of the possible merger between the two leagues in the near future.
Bhutia, who is also the current chairman of the AIFF Technical Committee besides being an advisor, does not see any immediate merger of the ISL and I-League.
"I would want to have ISL. Next year, I feel that ISL should have six Indians, instead of the five currently. In another two or three years, the number of foreigners should be reduced to four which is the current rule in the I-League.
Only then we can think of a merger between the two leagues," said Bhutia who was inducted into Asian Football Hall of Fame last year for his contribution to the game.
That I-League, launched in 2007 to professionalise Indian football by replacing National Football League, has been a failure is an open secret but nobody from the AIFF nor the players -- former and current -- has said it in public. It took a Bhutia, arguably the most popular Indian footballer ever, to say that in the open.
The 2015-16 season of the I-League, beginning January 9, will be severely curtailed with just nine clubs taking part.
Three clubs -- Pune FC, Bharat FC and Royal Wahingdoh -- recently pulled out of the I-League due to financial woes of running their first teams.
Bhutia said that the country's football profile will not improve until it has a robust youth development programme.
"Youth development programme is the most important thing.
Everybody in India wants results. Until we improve upon our youth development programme and built academies to train youngsters at the grassroot, results will not come," he said when asked what has held Indian football back from rising at the world stage.
"AIFF is focussing on youth development and U-17 World Cup in 2017 is the first step. But this should not be taken as the end. The U-15 players are touring and playing matches all over the globe and AIFF is doing this in view of U-17 World Cup. I wished the AIFF had done this even without the World Cup," said the former striker known as 'Sikkimese Sniper' in his playing days for his goal-scoring abilities.
Gouramangi Singh, who was part of the Indian team from 2006-12, also took part in the discussion along with ISL side NorthEast United's goalkeeper T P Rehenesh.
I-League Chief Executive Officer Sunando Dhar, who also spoke on the occasion, said the system in the past had not been favourable for young talents.
"I wished it (current U-15 boys touring all over the globe) happened earlier also. The likes of Bhaichung and Gouramangi have not become stars because of the system but in spite of the system," he said.
"Just like Bhaichung said we cannot take 2017 U-17 World as the end but will take as the beginning," he added.
Talking about the I-League, which will now be reduced to a nine-team affair, Dhar said, "We need to have a league which has 14-15 teams and played for 7-8 months. This is what we would strive for to achieve.
"But there are improvements. Earlier, there were no academies at the club level. But now, most of the I-League clubs have academies.
"We launched an Under-15 league this year. I agree that this could have started earlier but we could not do that due to lack of funds. But the response has been great and 80 teams are taking part in the Under-15 league," he said.