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ISL vs I-League: How badly is AIFF's facade hurting Indian football?

ISL vs I-League: How badly is AIFFs facade hurting Indian football?

Abhranil Roy

Updated: 23 April 2021 6:33 AM GMT
Unless you have been living under a rock over the past few months or so, it is likely that you have been inundated with the news of the never-ending spat between the I-League clubs and the All India Football Federation (AIFF). It is a drama that has stretched on longer than the Ekta Kapoor-produced "Kasauti Zindagi Ki", and just like the popular Hindi TV show, is set to pander meaninglessly for the foreseeable future with no endgame in sight. It is a travesty and makes a mockery of a global sport that is also followed widely in India, but above all, it continues to damage the growth of the clubs and franchises that have a stake in the ISL vs I-League: How badly is AIFF's facade hurting Indian football? national football structure like no other.

Refresh my memory, what is the spat all about?

In simple terms, the spat is between two factions, one of whom has contributed to the organic growth of the Indian football community for years, while the other is the governing body which has historically proved itself to be incompetent to manage the sport time and again and has now sold itself to a private third party and is working in their interest.

Sounds complicated? Well, let me simplify it for you.

The I-League was established in 2007 as India's premier footballing competition, and it included clubs of the stature of East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Dempo SC, who have all had historic competitions to the growth of the sport in the country. In 2014, however, the AIFF launched the Indian Super League (ISL) under the aegis of IMG-Reliance; initially branding it as a "tournament" that would only last for two or three months and in the words of its president, Mr. Praful Patel, would in no way impact the status of the I-League. However, over the last couple of years, the AIFF has aggressively backed the ISL, given it preferential treatment over the I-League to the point that the latter was threatened to be demoted as the second tier of Indian football for no apparent reason. There were questions about the AIFF's motives for its pro-ISL stance, but that was clarified recently when Mr. Ranjit Bajaj, owner of the I-League 2017/18 champions Minerva Punjab FC, recently leaked on Twitter the Master Rights Agreement (MRA) that was signed by the AIFF and Reliance in 2010. The document defined the roadmap that Indian football would take in the upcoming years, including how the Football Sport Development Limited (FSDL) would play a massive role in shaping the future of the sport in the country in exchange for a 700 crore rupees payment to the AIFF.
Seven I-League clubs met and announced that they are ready to approach "Appropriate Courts for relief". In effect, the AIFF had sold its spine and soul to a third party while signing the MRA, a fact that was facilitated by the presence of Mr. Kushal Das, who was allegedly a former Reliance employee who had joined the AIFF only a few days before signing the aforementioned document. The MRA specifically contained the promise of making the ISL the "most senior and prestigious" football competition in India, thus reducing Mr. Patel's statements in 2014 that it would be nothing more than a "booster dose" to Indian football an absolute, stone-faced lie.

AIFF v I-League clubs: A timeline

To put it simply, the protests from the I-League outfits has been with regards to this exact issue of the AIFF forcefully rendering their enterprises worthless. In fact, it was in early 2016 when the likes of Bharat FC, Royal Wahingdoh and Pune FC had pulled out from the I-League that the AIFF had first floated the idea of merging the-then ISL and I-League clubs together. However, soon after they changed their plans, proposing a three-tier system that would see the ISL franchises and a few I-League clubs in the top-tier, with the second tier comprised of the remainder of the I-League clubs which would have no promotion but only relegation. The third division would consist of current second division I-League clubs, but it would have both promotion and relegation. In reaction to this proposal from the AIFF, the Goan trio of Dempo, Salgaocar and Sporting Club de Goa pulled out of the I-League in 2016 stating that the governing body had no interest in promoting the sport and making it inclusive for all in its roadmap. In light of what the other I-League clubs have had to go through since then, it certainly seems that they made the wisest decision. Since 2017, rumours of the AIFF continually backing the ISL to replace the I-League has made the rounds, especially when in 2017 the ISL was granted AFC Cup playoff spots which were previously reserved for Federation Cup winners. However, the protests only gathered steam in the December of 2018, when the AIFF declared that the broadcasters would display only 31 of the remaining 61 I-League games left in the season, without notice or even a formal discussion with the clubs. That triggered a movement that had probably never been seen before in Indian football, forcing most I-League clubs to unite and protest against the AIFF's unfair rulings.

What are the demands of the I-League clubs?

Having formed a consortium of sorts back in December 2018 under the aegis of Mr. Bajaj, I-League clubs have written official complaints to the AFC, threatened to sue the AIFF in courts and have even made their grievances known to Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently. Their basic demands are: • To form a unified league of 18 to 20 teams that would have both ISL and I-League franchises • To ensure promotion and relegation in all tiers of Indian football • To reduce the colossal 15 crore franchise fee that all ISL franchises have to pay to be a part of the competition, every season
• To grant AFC Champions League Play-offs and AFC Cup playoffs quota to this unified league so all the clubs can compete evenly Currently, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Minerva Punjab, Aizawl FC, Gokulam Kerala FC and Churchill Brothers are all a part of this conglomerate, but their demands have so far been turned a deaf ear to. The Asian Football Confederation had presented a roadmap to the AIFF in 2017 to unify the two leagues, but nothing has ever been officially revealed from that report. As of now, Indian football is fighting a losing battle for its integrity and in the process, destroying the very elements that make the sport a spectacle for all the fans. These I-League clubs have had a huge contribution in taking the game to the standards that it has reached today, and they need continued nurturing from a capable body that is not engaged in nefarious dealings with third party organisations.
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