Conflicts in Indian football are like noises in a crowded Indian market. They are always present in plenty but not all pass the attention threshold.

Since the launch of the Indian Super League in 2014, unrest has been brewing among stakeholders of Indian football not part of the grand competition. The fear of being sidelined by the advent of the new league was caused moment the competition was announced. Initially, there were attempts to quell the fire, but slowly as the ISL found its feet, the narrative changed.

False assurance

In 2014, during the launch of the ISL, Praful Patel, the All India Football Federation president, vehemently stated that I-League would be the pinnacle of Indian football and would remain so with or without the ISL clubs joining the I-League. The ISL was only a “tournament” and a “booster dose” to football in India, according to Patel.

Come June 2019, AIFF’s stance has not stayed true to its president’s words as media reports indicate that the ISL is set to be officially named India’s top football competition in an AIFF Executive Meet on July 3. The apex football body’s General Secretary Kushal Das pointed to a contractual clause with its commercial partner IMG-Reliance, called the Master Rights Agreement, that states that the ISL would be made the “most senior and prestigious” competition of Indian football. The contract that Das is referring to was signed in 2010, four years before the ISL’s launch. Thus, it reduces Patel’s statements in 2014 to an absolute lie.

In the meantime (from 2014-2019) six new clubs have entered the I-League and sustained themselves in the competition till the last season, unaware of the contractual obligation that would force the demotion of their league. Three of those clubs have already won the competition and have managed to feed players to the national teams and also the ISL. This result has been a product of a heavy investment by those clubs, despite little return.

“We joined the league after 2014. If you had made up your mind that ISL was going to be the top league, you should have at least told us. We have invested a lot in the last few years to get the club at this level so that we can compete at the highest level, not be a part of a closed second-tier league. This is fraud,” Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Minerva Punjab, I-League champions in 2018, told

Gokulam Kerala CEO, Dr Ashok Kumar, revealed to that the club was told by the AIFF as recently as June 1 that the “status quo” from last season would be maintained and the ISL and I-League would be held simultaneously.

“We have been told in June that the season will progress as planned and the status-quo would be maintained. For a club like us, we need to plan well in advance, so we have started our preparations for next season,” the Gokulam Kerala CEO stated.

So when the media reports of an impending structural change that would relegate the I-League as the second tier of Indian football increased in number, seven I-League clubs – East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Minerva Punjab, Gokulam Kerala, Churchill Brothers, Aizawl FC and NEROCA – met on Monday in New Delhi and in a joint statement said they would take AIFF to the “appropriate courts” if the expected changes take place on July 3.

The AIFF responded to the statement cautioning the I-League clubs against making unnecessary and premature accusations on the federation.

Super Cup boycott

All I-League clubs excluding Real Kashmir FC had decided to boycott the 2019 Indian Super Cup in protest to AIFF’s reluctance to lend an ear to their concerns about their futures.

The president had promised to meet the I-League clubs, but it never materialised as Patel was busy with his commitments. In the meantime, as clubs waited on a response from the AIFF about the meeting with the president, the preliminary round of the Super Cup had already taken place, leaving the clubs in a tough spot. The clubs eventually decided against participating in the Super Cup, citing step-motherly treatment.

The AIFF then slapped a Rs 10 lakh penalty on the clubs except for East Bengal who were fined Rs 5 lakh and Mohun Bagan who for reasons unknown escaped the fine entirely. The apex body then increased the fine to Rs 27 lakh.

The move attracted heavy criticism from several I-League clubs, with Minerva Punjab owner Bajaj accusing the AIFF of attempting to “kill them”.

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The proposed roadmap of 2016

The AIFF had first openly revealed their plans of making the ISL the top tier of Indian football in 2016 when it presented a roadmap for the future league structure. It mentioned that the top league would be a closed league with more than 8 teams with no relegation and promotion. All ISL clubs would be a part of that league automatically.

However, at the time, it had left the door open for I-League clubs to join the new league by paying the necessary franchise fee to the Football Sports Development Limited, the entity that runs the ISL. All ISL clubs pay that fee to play in the competition. The roadmap thus made it mandatory for clubs to pay the fee in order to enter the top league, with their performances and investments over the years not being a criteria, let alone been given a back seat. The I-league clubs that wouldn’t enter the top league by paying the fee would have to be part of League One, the second tier of Indian football, that would have relegation, but no promotion.

The franchise fee is reported to be in the region of Rs 15 crore and several I-League clubs criticised the new roadmap at the time. Three Goan clubs Salgaocar, Dempo and Sporting Clube de Goa who had been an integral part of the I-League for many years pulled out of the competition in protest. They have remained absent since.

“You can put Minerva in the fifth division. I’m fine with that. But at least give me promotion. Why should I invest and play in a lower-tier league if there are no rewards and I’ll continue to be in that league despite winning it?” Minerva Punjab owner Bajaj said questioning the AIFF’s plans.

The proposed roadmap though never materialised entirely. I-League and ISL have been run as parallel leagues since the 2017-18 season. The AIFF meanwhile announced that it would seek directions from AFC and FIFA on the matter of the league structure. Having done so, AFC submitted the report to the AIFF in late 2018, with little clarity on the exact date of receipt. Since, the AIFF have rarely made a mention of it, leading many to believe the apex body wanted to overlook suggestions made in the report as it favoured the I-League clubs.

In 2017, the ISL invited bids for new franchises. It was believed to be a window for the big I-League clubs – East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and Bengaluru FC – to enter the ISL. Bengaluru FC joined the ISL in 2017 by winning the bid. However, Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan refused to dish out money to enter the new league and remained in the I-League. Jamshedpur FC eventually won the second bid and were drafted into the ISL.

Lack of clarity raises questions over credibility

AIFF’s changing stance about the league structure of Indian football, and a recent reluctance to consider the possibility of a bigger unified league involving all or most top clubs has made matters sour.

The merger of the I-League and the ISL was considered to be just a matter of time before 2016. Several senior players including Sunil Chhetri had batted for one big unified league. However, the possibility that once even the AIFF entertained was abruptly dropped by the body in recent times.

Before the Super Cup pull out, the I-league clubs had proposed the AIFF a new league structure with a fresh revenue model. However, the AIFF took little efforts to welcome the effort towards working out an amicable solution. The opportunity for an inclusive approach was lost.

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“We have received the proposal and while the common objective for all stakeholders is to have a long, top league for 8-9 months, what needs to be ascertained is whether the market has the appetite to sustain such a league. The proposal is based on the assumption that if the number of matches increase and are broadcast, the revenue from sponsorship will increase significantly.” Das had told ESPN India at the time.

The proposal was never meant to be perfect, but it did at least deserve consideration on the part of the federation. The sheer dismissal of the proposal has left few to believe that the AIFF wants to force its plans and was merely dancing to the tune of its commercial partners.

Bajaj has been releasing scanned copies of the document, he claims to be the Master Right Agreement between AIFF and IMG-Reliance, on Twitter and has accused the AIFF of having several cases of conflict of interest.

Kushal Das has refuted the allegations but has given little clarity over what the AIFF plans to do with the league structure. There are no answers to the questions the I-League clubs have about their future. Moreover, the apex body’s fickle nature in the recent past has kept everyone guessing.

AIFF must understand that actions speak louder than words. They can clear the air of conspiracy surrounding them by providing greater clarity for all parties involved, not just the selected ones. Time has come for AIFF to clear the smoke and it can only be done by dousing the fire.