Yogesh Joshee claims that he had first proposed the concept of an Indian Super League way back in 2010
Whose ISL Is It Anyway?
Nation of Sport spoke with the person who claims otherwise.
Before the Indian Super League there was, the Indian Super League.
Hold that thought.
In December 2010, IMG Reliance (IMGR) inked a 15 year/INR 700 crore ($155 million at the time) deal with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) for the “promotion and development of football” in India. In return for “all commercial rights” of AIFF tournaments, IMGR was tasked to “radically restructure, overhaul, improve, popularize and promote the game of football throughout India, from the grassroots to the professional level”. This included, among other deliverables, moulding the image and raising the profile of the national and domestic teams, along with managing the branding, marketing, and telecast of the domestic tournaments.
IMGR – a JV between IMG and the Reliance Group – also laid out a brief plan to “develop, operate and administer a new professional football league in the country” at the time of signing the contract.
Three years later, they and AIFF, along with Star India announced the Indian Super League (ISL), “an unrivalled football championship” aiming to make football “one of the country’s flagship sports”. The league was to “revolutionize the sport” by giving Indian football “greater global exposure”, and making India “a name to reckon with in the global arena.”
True to cause, the ISL became an instant hit. Eight teams – Chennai, Delhi, Goa, Guwahati, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune took the field in the first season, all teams playing evening games under floodlights, to stadiums packed with fans adorned in team colors. This was a new feeling for football in India where, except for the I-League Kolkata derby (Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal) and the occasional game in Goa, the sport rarely saw more than a few hundred gathered in the stands. The ISL was also helped, not the least with the presence of yesteryear football legends – known as marquee players – such as Alessandro Del Piero (Delhi), Luis Garcia (Kolkata), Elano & Marco Materazzi (Chennai) and Fredrik Ljungberg (Mumbai). ISL boasted of its own share of Bollywood and cricketing glamour with the likes of Ranbir Kapoor (Mumbai), Abhishek Bachchan (Chennai), and Sachin Tendulkar (Kerala) holding ownership stakes in teams.
At the time, the revolutionary tournament – despite its learnings from other international leagues – was believed to be the brainchild of IMGR, something they had been working on since the mega deal was signed.
But as the ISL took center stage in the years to come, one man looked on in disbelief from four thousand miles away. He could hardly fathom the fact that the ISL was being presented by IMGR as their own idea. All his efforts in coming up with an idea and creating a blueprint to give Indian football a push in the right direction had simply been lifted and presented as someone else’s.
The story dates back to as early as 2008, at least two years before the IMG and Reliance Group partnership was formed, and the I-League was the top league in India.
Yogesh Joshee, who had migrated to England as a toddler and had grown up playing football in the neighbourhood, chose academics – an education in IT consultancy – over the sport. He could hardly be kept away from football, though. During a chance visit to the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) awards, he was exposed to the world of athletes and player representatives, and his career took a drastic turn.
In the following few years, he worked his way up the ladder to earn his FIFA licensing badge and became a certified agent. He then set up Match World Ltd. – a football agency based out of England. Among the many working relationships that he developed during those early days, one was one with Kenny Moyes, brother of current West Ham United manager, David Moyes.
During the course of his work, Joshee – still deeply connected to his roots in India – realised the lack of both, Indian representation and players in world football. He decided to jump in.
In 2008, he paid a visit to then India coach Bob Houghton, who was with the national team on an exposure tour in Portugal. On inquiring with the top boss, Houghton apprised him of the potential of a then 23-year-old Sunil Chhetri. By then, Chhetri – who would go on to don the captain’s armband for India – had turned out for top Indian clubs such as Mohun Bagan, JCT and East Bengal. Houghton singled him out as the most promising player on the squad.
This piqued Joshee’s interest. He signed on to manage Chhetri’s career, along with a bunch of other players from the national squad such as Subrata Pal, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. Signing with Joshee proved to be the shot in the arm Chhetri’s career needed; he landed trials at England’s Coventry City and Queens Park Rangers, while turning out for Kansas City Wizards in the U.S. and the reserve side of Sporting CP in Portugal.
The normally self-effacing Joshee takes credit for being instrumental in giving Chhetri’s career a push in the right direction. It was one of the first instances of an Indian footballer being represented by an agent. Not only was Chhetri, the future star of Indian football, going places, he was quickly taking up the mantle of scoring goals for India from the legendary Bhaichung Bhutia.
The association and work with Chhetri helped Joshee forge many new relationships in the world of Indian football; he nearly became the first agent to bring an International star to India when he almost got Pune FC to sign former Manchester United player, and 2008 UEFA Champion, Anderson Luís de Abreu Oliveira to their I-League squad.
In September 2010, when the AIFF was looking for a candidate for the post of general secretary, it was Joshee, on a business trip in India at the time, who introduced a candidate he had in mind to Praful Patel, President of AIFF. Later that year, the two met once again at the Football Players Association of India awards ceremony, where he told Patel that he had a presentation on an idea that, he believed, would galvanize the AIFF and change the face and fate of Indian football.
A couple of days later, the duo met at Patel’s office. During that brief meeting, Joshee made a presentation of a tournament that he and a close associate from Portugal had conceptualised. It was a bold idea, one that would help Indian football unravel its full potential.
Labelled the Indian Super League, the concept was not only to improve the standard and infrastructure of football in India, but also help generate revenue and future partnerships for the those associated with it.
“My colleague and I came up with the concept back in 2009 and presented it to Praful Patel. IMG can claim they started it, but they know very well that it was our presentation that they used,” Joshee says.
Joshee’s “Superstar Football Tournament” proposed a partnership between AIFF and Major League Soccer (MLS), the premier league in America. The idea behind roping in MLS was manifold – the timing of the seasons in the two leagues (ISL was proposed to be conducted from November to March; the MLS season ran from March to October), the draw for corporate sponsors, the improving trade between the two countries, and even the seamless blend of the glamour of Hollywood / Bollywood with the sport. Joshee even reached out to the president of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) at the time, Sunil Gulati – a person of Indian origin. Joshee apprised him of his meeting with Patel and proposed a potential partnership with the MLS. Joshee had received a less than satisfactory response at the time, but moving forward with the partnership seemed ‘very possible’.
The proposed league was to consist of eight teams: seven Indian teams would be hosted in six major Indian cities – Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai, with one in a major American city – either New York or Los Angeles. Teams would play a round robin format, where each round would be a three-day event starting Thursday, and kickoffs scheduled for 4PM and 7PM. And contrary to the convention followed in most international leagues, the top two teams after the league stage would eventually play a final.
Each club would have a squad of 24, including I-League players. Forty international players including superstars the likes of David Beckham, Thierry Henry – both of whom played in the MLS – Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, and Ronaldinho were mentioned in the presentation. Indian coaches would be accompanied by marquee international coaches the likes of Johan Cruyff, Jurgen Klinsmann, Ruud Gullit, Diego Maradona and Zico – who incidentally coached FC Goa for three ISL seasons.
The rights for the franchises would cost potential owners a flat rate of $ 50 million each. The $400 million fee generated would be utilised to build a National Football Centre and eight football stadiums to improve football infrastructure in the country. Revenue would be generated through media rights, sponsorship, merchandising and ticketing. AIFF would keep 20% of the amount generated, while the rest would be split equally among the eight franchises. State associations and I-League clubs would be allocated funds necessary to give football at the grassroots a much-needed impetus.
While the I-League would remain the top league – scheduled between March and October – the proposed league would be played from December to January and would supplement the I-League, rather than step on it’s toes as it stands today.
“It was possibly the best solution for India at that time,” says Joshee. “Even (then India coach) Bob Houghton thought it a good idea and I believe it would have generated substantial returns. I met Mr Patel at the office of civil aviation and left the papers with him. He was impressed with the idea.”
Joshee continues: “At the time, IMG were trying to get all the media rights to football in India. Mr. Patel even asked for my opinion on a few of the large agencies working in football at that time.”
In November 2010, Joshee even apprised Kushal Das, who had become General Secretary of AIFF by then, of his meeting with Patel and sent him the presentation for reference.
The IMGR-AIFF deal was announced in December 2010 – a shot in the arm for Indian football. The announcement came a couple of months after Joshee’s meeting with Patel, and though he hadn’t heard back from the AIFF President regarding his proposal, Joshee felt positive that an association was inevitable. Indian football had opened its doors to what was being proposed as a solution to raise the bar and Joshee felt confident he could be part of it.
Around the same time, Joshee was contacted by an old acquaintance in Jason Hughes.
Hughes, who was then a part of Hughes Insight Ltd, had first met Joshee when he was working for Celtic FC. Joshee and his team were mandated to represent them [Celtic FC] in India. Kenny Moyes and Joshee went to India with Hughes for the first time late in 2009, where he [Hughes] was introduced to many stakeholders of Indian football.
“I had not seen Jason in many months,” Joshee recalls. “And then out of the blue, he asked to meet up with me. Basically he didn’t know anyone in India until I took him there.”
A month prior to the ISL announcement, the two were again looking to collaborate on a number of projects, some of which were closely related to the Indian football market. Joshee’s roots and his connections in India made him the right man for such a job. Hughes and Joshee made another trip in 2010 for a follow-up with, among others including Reliance, Houghton, and AIFF, Abhijit Sarkar of Sahara.
“Jason asked me all types of question about India and Indian football. I shared my ISL idea with him and he even asked if he could keep a copy of the proposal to see if he could give some ideas and help me.”
This was nothing out of the ordinary.
Joshee’s roots, his connections, and his traction in Indian football, made him the right partner for anyone looking to invest or get started with business in Indian football. What was out of the ordinary though, was what followed.
“A short while after that[our trip], I learnt that he has been offered a job by IMG and heard little from him.”
Hughes would go on to join IMG as the Vice President of football in May 2011.
Joshee’s Portuguese colleague too had a similar experience with Jefferson Slack, whom he shared the ISL idea with. Slack joined IMG in June 2008 as the Senior Vice President of Global Business Development – Football. When Joshee reached out to Slack in April 2011, informing him of his meetings with Patel and proposing possible associations in the future, he failed to get any response from him as well.
“I’m not sure what happened after that, but when the Indian Super League was announced, there was no mention of us. It could be coincidence but judging by whom we discussed these plans with, I would not be surprised if they had simply lifted our idea,” he says.
In 2013, IMGR finally had everything in place and announced the inaugural edition of the ISL the following year. It was to be a private tournament, which would complement the I-League.
Instead, after four seasons, the ISL has become the No. 1 league in India, overshadowing the I-League, which has barely evolved – although its teams have improved – and lost one of it’s premier teams, Bengaluru FC, to the ISL.
“We are just building this (ISL) as a short-term solution,” Praful Patel told a daily in August 2013. “I-League is certainly the long-term solution. We need to strengthen it though and this is just a part of that process. Everybody thinks we have some magic wand to resolve issues facing Indian football. If somebody has a better solution, please come forward and share it with us.”
The ISL’s resemblance to Joshee’s proposed league was quite apparent. Joshee even followed up with Patel in June 2013, reminding him of the ‘IPL-style football tournament’ he had proposed in 2010 and even congratulating him for the creation of this ‘great concept’. Joshee was hurt with the way things had unfolded, but happy to see the development nonetheless.
We reached out to Patel asking him about Joshee’s proposal. In his reply by email he said that “ideas were given by many people and this [current format of the ISL] is the culmination [of it]”
“The ISL has been successful in bringing a commercial value to Indian football. The league has been able to grab eyeballs, breaking all sociological barriers and making it more acceptable across all sections, while also drawing huge interest in the corporate world,” he wrote in the email response.
“The six stadias which hosted the [2017 FIFA Under-17] World Cup are truly world class [some of which double up as home grounds for ISL teams] and the lack of infrastructure, which has been one of the biggest bane for Indian football, is a thing of the past,” Patel said.
“However I feel this is just the beginning. There is still way forward for Indian football to complete the three-way jigsaw puzzle which will take it to its desired goal – player development by focussing on grassroots, further growth in infrastructure and incremental investment,” he added.
About the ISL being a ‘short-term solution’, Patel remained elusive: “At the round table meeting with the Asian Football Confederation in June 2017, all stakeholders in Indian football have agreed to a clearly defined road map to create the right structure for Indian club football in the coming years. The roadmap will culminate in a new and sustainable future for the game across the country.”
While Slack quit IMG Reliance in 2014, Hughes quit soon after. Both were unavailable for comment.
All efforts to reach out to IMG remain unanswered as of the time of publication. Gulati, who ended his reign as president of USSF last year, said that he was ‘not in a position to offer comments’.
Despite feeling robbed of his idea, Joshee is happy to see the progress that Indian football has made over the years and is happy to help when the opportunity arises. Joshee even believes Patel coming into Indian football was a great thing to happen to the game, proven more so, after the success of the U-17 World Cup.
“It would have been nice to get some credit. But do I feel bitter? No not at all! As long as the game is going in the right direction in India, it is great. I would like to be a part of it, as long as it’s with the right people with the right mindset,” Joshee says.