The buck stops with the AIFF

Football

As far as dramas go, the current predicament in Indian Football can go toe to toe with the best of telenovelas. A bedraggled elder, a perky upstart with high ambitions, a long-suffering hard worker, lies, false smiles and false dawns… it has all the right ingredients.

As it stands, the future of football in the country hangs in balance. Well, not really, but you know... 

Last month, All India Football Federation said it would allow the Indian Super League to be elevated to top division status. They did so by recommending to the Asian Football Confederation to reallocate the AFC Champions League slot to the ISL. The I-League, the official league of the country till the end of last season, would thus be demoted with the clubs having no chance to move up the ladder in the foreseeable future.

The recent revelations, and done so ever so dramatically on social media, of a Master Rights Agreement (MRA) signed between the All India Football Federation and its marketing and broadcasting partner Football Sports Development Limited back in 2010 was pretty ironclad on the matter of elevation and exclusivity of the ISL.

So the roadmap of Indian football - a term which had reached mythical proportions - was unfurled. To put it mildly, it looks a rocky one.

“I wouldn’t point fingers at anyone because at the end of the day there is something called clarity over here,” said Rohit Ramesh, owner of I-League champions Chennai City FC. “If everyone comes and sits on a table leaving egos aside, I’m pretty sure every club will get some clarity with regard to how the Indian football has to progress. We are not children to pinpoint and say this or that person. Work has to get done and we have to see what’s the next step.”

But Ramesh is not certain if that is a possibility.

“Not too sure, usually what happens is, all of us would sit with the federation before the season but I don’t know right now the situation. I’m not sure whether we all can sit and work something out. That’s something for the future and its critical.”

Meanwhile, Gokulam’s Ashok Kumar said: “We’re not waiting for anything from the Federation. For us football is most important. We’ve come here with a mission of resurrecting Kerala football and we are in the process of doing it.” 

To be fair, the I-League clubs - or rather clubs with history and legacy as Indian coach Igor Stimac put it - have to take their share of the blame. For years, the league - in various incarnations - muddled through without causing significant ripples, more than a dozen clubs even shutting shop in that time.

And with the advent of ISL and the perceived alignment of the AIFF to the incumbent league, the Goan clubs pulled out, foreseeing the issues back in 2016 (they did not pull out before the ISL came as AIFF president Praful Patel claimed recently) while Shillong Lajong decided to field only homegrown players in the league last season.

That said, the last handful of years have seen a real upturn in popularity as the league spread its wings from Kashmir to Kerala and from Shillong to Goa, covering the length and breadth of the country. The Cinderella stories of Aizawl, Minerva, Chennai and even Real Kashmir have attracted fans. It became a league of surprises and fairy-tales.

The fact that ISL has done a lot of good for Indian football also cannot be overlooked at this juncture.

The I-League clubs’ recent letter seeking aid from the AFC and FIFA have found takers, the latter even asking the Indian federation to provide updates on the 2018 AFC report, which had allowed the two leagues to run simultaneously only till 2018-19 season on the condition that implementation of the suggested road map from 2019-20.

The AIFF expressed its inability to put the ‘roadmap’ into practice, which calls to question the brain and brawn of the federation. The price to pay could be expulsion from AFC club competitions although that situation looks unlikely considering India’s influence at the body and the past leeways given to the Indian clubs in terms of licensing criteria.

“In another three or so years, you can negotiate with IMG-R,” AIFF president was quoted saying. But in recent history, these words and promises have meant little. 

When reached out, sources at AIFF revealed that it’s a stalemate and there were no updates. Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Minerva, on the other hand, says the I-League clubs are waiting to move to Supreme Court and failing that, the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS).

However you slice it, this is probably the biggest divide that has ever surfaced in the realms of Indian football. While fingers can be pointed in all directions, the buck has to stop with the federation.

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