THE SLOW PROGRESS towards IMG-Reliance and the Kolkata top division clubs East Bengal and Mohun Bagan coming towards an agreement continues.
Yesterday IFA chief and AIFF senior vice president Subrata Dutta held a meeting with representatives of the two clubs, who despite their century long rivalry are working together to work out a favourable contract with IMG-R with regards to them playing in the new top division league (which will adopt the brand name of ISL) after the re-structuring of Indian football league system.
The original proposal put forth by IMG-R was a 30 year contract in which the ISL organizers would find sponsors for EB and MB to fund their teams, in return of essentially handing over the control of the clubs to the sponsors by revamping how executive decisions at the clubs would be taken. The club officials, threatened with power loss at their clubs, vehemently denied that proposal.
After much back and forth the clubs have put forth a new set of proposals to ISL; and they have drawn inspiration from an unlikely source - Aizawl FC.
The clubs are citing Aizawl FC's success at building a team with a budget of around Rs 3 crore and becoming I-League champions despite facing multiple teams who have a budget about 5 times larger. The officials argued, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan can be competitive in ISL with a Rs 15 crore budget, despite facing teams that have a budget of Rs 30 crore, in the same way that Aizawl FC have shown themselves capable of winning the I-League with a much smaller budget.
What this does is that if the clubs are allowed to play in the new ISL with a smaller budget, they can take care of finding sponsors by themselves and not rely on IMG-R for it. That way a lot of the key conditions in the contracts, including control over intellectual property and having representatives of ISL-appointed sponsors on the club's governing board, would be made redundant.
At first glacne, this makes East Bengal and Mohun Bagan appear to be potential underdogs in the new ISL, playing with about half the budget as other teams. But if the number of foreigners per squad is reduced, other ISL teams will also cut their budget significantly and this is something the existing franchises have wanted to do for a while; inflated wages are an issue in teams like Delhi Dynamos and Kerala Blasters.
The other demand EB and MB officials have made is a waiver of the franchise fee, but that is likely to be a negotiation tactic to get IMG-R to agree to a smaller franchise fee.
The Kolkata clubs are set to meet IMG-R officials on 1st May. And they want to back up their proposal by paying a visit to AIFF president Praful Patel days afterwards. But it's doubtful how much that would help; Mr Patel has been skeptical of the old guards of Indian football, often deriding them as "legacy clubs", implying that they are not as good as the new clubs like Bengaluru FC and ISL franchises, therefore undeserving of being in the same competition as them. There have been reports that Mr Patel even backed Atletico de Kolkata's claim of exclusivity over the city of Kolkata, which is an attempt on the Sanjeev Goenka-owned franchise's part to avoid being on a level playing ground with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. ATK has relied on the second-hand support of EB and MB fans for the last 3 years which they fear will disappear if those clubs enter the ISL.
However, the organizers of ISL are interested in having East Bengal and Mohun Bagan on board in order to cash in on their popularity and the glamour of Kolkata Derby which remains, by far, the single biggest attraction in Indian football.
But the other side of this story is how Aizawl FC is being used as a glowing example by East Bengal and Mohun Bagan but at the same time, these clubs seem to be okay with the idea that the Mizoram club could be forcefully relegated to League One even if they become Champions of India this season.
Aizawl FC are one point away from winning the I-League, but they are already worried that when the leagues are merged they will end up in the lower division because they do not have enough budget to pay the ISL franchise fee and make a high budget squad. They are also crippled by the fact that they are playing in the I-League thanks to a temporary inclusion granted by AIFF after they got relegated last season which reduces their ability to claim a place in ISL after the merger.
Nevertheless, it's almost unheard of in the footballing world that a champion of the top division is relegated to the second division because they have a small budget. Robert Royte, owner of Aizawl FC, has threatened with legal action if relegation is forced upon his club, and he will have a strong case to make if the People's Club wins the league on Sunday.
East Bengal and Mohun Bagan - as well as Bengaluru FC who are the other I-League club who are being considered for inclusion in the revamped ISL - have never taken a stance about the potential forceful relegation of Aizawl FC and other deserving top divsion clubs. Nor did they stand with the Goan clubs who raised their voice against forceful relegation last year, leaving them with no choice but to pull out of I-League in protest.
It's interesting how EB and MB cite footballing values when asking for favourable ISL contracts for themselves while completely ignore the injustice being meted out to Aizawl FC, a club whose success they are using as an example while making a case for themselves.
By using their money power and political clout, the Kolkata clubs are slowly working their way into the new top division following the merger of leagues. Aizawl FC, meanwhile, are facing an uphill battle they will have to fight alone, without any of the Indian football's heavyweight clubs by their side.
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