In 2018-19, Adam Le Fondre scored 16 goals in the A-League for Sydney FC, finishing as the competition's second highest scorer. In 2019-20, he bettered that record with 20 goals (just two behind top scorer Jamie Maclaren of Melbourne City), leading Sydney to the championship. In 2020-21, Le Fondre will (in all likelihood) line up for Mumbai City FC in the Indian Super League.
While the Englishman's loan move from the Australian club is yet to be finalized, Le Fondre is the headline act in a summer that has seen eight players leaving the A-league to join the ISL. They'll be joined by former Brisbane Roar coach Robbie Fowler, who has been appointed head coach of East Bengal. Unlike some of the ISL's initial marquee signings, these players are not past their prime, and have not signed on to make one last big pay cheque before retirement. They have been signed with the specific intent of improving teams on field, and not just to build their brands off it.
Why, then, are the Australian champions allowing their top scorer to go out on loan. Why are A-listers leaving an established league for the ISL?
The short answer is a rather base motivating factor: money.
It is why players are looking for options outside Australia, and why teams like Sydney are letting go of their star players, putting their long-term squad building plans on the back burner.
In June 2020, the Newcastle Jets confirmed that James Donachie had joined them from Melbourne Victory. The Jets' CEO Lawrie McKinna even told the Newcastle Herald that the signing had been made keeping in mind their "long-term goals." Within four-odd months, FC Goa announced that Donachie was joining them on loan.
"The A-League, in terms of our salary, has gone down. We had a deal with Fox Sports that has been reduced this coming season, which means each team has less to spend this season," says Donachie. He is referring to the nearly 60% reduction in the broadcasting deal that has crunched into the financial planning of all the clubs.
Last season, the salary caps for clubs in the ISL and the A-league were roughly similar -- ~INR 16.5 crores, or AU$3.2 million. This season, the reduction in the broadcasting revenue has seen the league reduce the cap to AU$2.1 million, a whopping 30%+ reduction.
FC Goa's director of football, Ravi Puskur explains that this means A-league clubs are finding it extremely hard to meet the requirements of players on high-wage contracts; hence, their openness for loan deals such as Donachie's.
"It was just after they announced what the salary cap would be in Australia," says Donachie about the move. "I had signed a three year deal, but then the salary cap got reduced and we had discussions on what they could do with it and the players they had. It was then that we signed the deal with Goa."
What is helping clubs like Goa is that unlike the A-League, there is no minimum wage floor in the ISL. This gives Indian clubs the flexibility of keeping expenses low on young, local talent while topping up salaries of high-value imports. This is something the A-league simply cannot compete with in current conditions.
It helps, of course, that players who have travelled to India have found success. The only person who scored more A-League goals than Le Fondre in 2018-19 was crowned ISL champion the next year -- Roy Krishna is now a darling of the league. As is his ex-Wellington Phoenix teammate, David Williams, and both seem to be enjoying their time in India.
"I spoke to David Williams from ATK," says Donachie. "That was a while ago now, when Ravi [Puskur] first called me [in May]. He and Krishna both spoke really highly of the league. He said [the opposition is] going to be high quality, and you're going to have your work cut out."
"We can earn more money there; we can play at a high level. To be quite honest, football in Australia is quite uncertain, I have had 6-7 A-League boys call me in the off-season about India. These are guys who you wouldn't expect to want to go there, these guys are the top A-League players," he said.
"Players see it as an opportunity to be in a different culture. Contracts are stable in India, it's not like you go there for three months and you don't get paid, like places in Iran or South Korea - you don't get run to the ground and you don't get played."
On their part, Indian clubs are moving in on the A-League, especially Australians, because of the AFC rule of 3 + 1, where you can field a maximum of three non-AFC-nationality foreigners and one from an AFC nation, which Australia is. While the rule will not be applicable domestically until next season, this is smart planning keeping that in mind. Besides, it is already a requirement for AFC competitions where Goa, ATK Mohun Bagan, and Bengaluru will represent India.
Another intangible factor that increases their appeal is that their ability to adapt would be accelerated thanks to English -- a lingua franca that is used more widely than most Asian tongues in India.
The influx of A-League talent may not shape the footballing philosophy of clubs in the same broad terms as, say, the Spaniards. But teams are confident that the quality of additions (including the AFC Champions League experience that players like Donachie bring with them) will enable them to compete domestically and on the continent.