Success in football is generally all about performance on the pitch. But in Indian football, it is not always the case. Right contacts at the right places can take one far ahead; results on the field can become irrelevant.

The latest case of the All India Football Federation’s proposal to freeze relegation in the I-League more than a month after the curtain came down on the successfully conducted championship under strict bio-bubble has raised a few questions. If the proposal gets the nod in the League committee and the executive committee, then Imphal-based North Eastern Re-Organising Cultural Association Football Club, more known as Neroca FC, will stay in the I-League despite being relegated with eight points from 14 matches.

Well, not many in the Indian football fraternity would be surprised by the AIFF’s move, which was unfolded in an “informal” meeting of the members chaired by the federation president, Praful Patel. Under the current president of the AIFF, such things have happened before. More than once. Regulations hold little importance here. Because some people seriously believe Indian football is their personal fiefdom.

In the meeting, the federation’s Romanian technical director Isac Doru gave a presentation that called for the freezing of relegation in the I-League that concluded on March 27 citing pandemic as the prime cause. Since the clubs are finding it difficult to sustain and meet both ends, it would be prudent to stop the relegation, was the argument.

Not everybody is ready to accept it at the face value. One senior member, deeply associated with the functioning of federation for several years, told this correspondent: “Was sporting reason the only cause for throwing the regulation book through the window? It is difficult to accept. We know such things happened before and every time it was done because of political compulsions.”

It is difficult to know who pulled strings and where, if that was the case again this time. But previous incidents do have some political connections, and that too not exactly in a discreet manner. In the 2015-’16 I-League, Aizawl FC could manage just 16 points from as many matches with four wins and were duly relegated. There began the drama. All kinds of political pressure was created on the federation – even the chief minister of the state reportedly spoke to senior AIFF officials. Informally though.

Result? In the executive committee meeting of the AIFF in Goa, Aizawl FC were reinstated in the I-League 2016-’17 by the AIFF for displaying “heartwarming performance”. After the meeting chaired by Praful Patel, the federation issued a statement saying: “Keeping in mind the heartwarming performance of Aizawl FC in the last edition, the Committee unanimously decided to give them a ticket to play in the 2016-’17 edition.”

The football federation seems to have absolute contempt for the regulation book written in black and white and approved and accepted by the league committee and the participating clubs before the start of the championships. It’s all about convenience, the AIFF way.

It happened once again in the 2017-’18 season when Churchill Brothers from Goa were relegated. They were brought back even more blatantly. The entire football community felt Patel and his men encouraged bending of rules but could do nothing about it. The concept of relegation was once again rendered meaningless.

On this occasion, the argument put forward by the Churchill management was that the club’s relegation would leave the state of Goa completely unrepresented in the top-tier of the I-League which in turn would be detrimental to the growth of football in the region. To add to it, the Goa club alleged “poor supervision” was the root cause behind their failure to stay afloat.

But luckily for Churchill Brothers, there were people available to accept the bizarre arguments and they happened to hold important posts in the AIFF. Despite the fact that Churchill moved court against the federation and lost, they were brought back to the I-League.

The latest episode on Neroca FC has also left some people unhappy. The meeting decided to push the matter through the League committee and the executive committee, which many felt was only an eyewash. The opinion of the clubs was sought. Many of them had relevant questions to ask. Will the benefit be extended to the affected club next time if the pandemic continues across the nation?

The meeting was attended by various state associations. Several of the members wondered what actually made the federation bosses suddenly wake up and take notice of things, which should have been settled long before the I-League started? Since the I-League was held in the midst of the pandemic, then why necessary changes were not made in the regulations beforehand?

In the light of the no-relegation development, one more question has come up. Does an “informal” meeting have the right to discuss such an important policy decision? In December 2020, Patel told the members he was running a caretaker body since the Supreme Court was yet to give directives on the elections and would refrain from taking any policy decision. Then does the current executive committee is in its jurisdiction to change the league’s regulations?

A senior member said: “This could lead to further complications. Once the rules set aside, it always becomes a dangerous precedent. We have a roadmap for Indian football ready from the 2024-’25 season, approved by the AFC. There will be one league with proper promotion and relegation system assured. If we fiddle with the rules so easily, then what is the guarantee the sanctity of the roadmap will be maintained when it will finally come up for execution? This way, people will lose faith in our functioning.”

To put it bluntly, are the fans left with much trust in the functioning and management of Indian football? The sudden attempt to change the regulation of the I-League is not a stray incident. When a demoted side is reinstated in a league, that, too, thrice in a span of six seasons, then one thing becomes clear. There seems a deliberate effort to denigrate the particular league. For all we know, there could be a bigger plan behind the ridiculous idea.