AS AIFF PREPARES to declare the ISL as the new top league from the 2019-20 season onwards, Minerva Punjab FC owner Ranjit Bajaj has escalated his long drawn fight against the Federation.
Several I-League clubs have come out in protest of AIFF's move as it unilaterally relegates them to second division despite having earned their place in the highest league of the country through competitive performance on the field.
Ranjit Bajaj, a leading figure of the rebel club alliance of I-League clubs who have been trying to aboid what will be certain death for many of the clubs who will be left with no motivation of means to attract sponsors if subjected to such unfair relegation, has been vocally outspoken against the AIFF's and their commercial partners FSDL's actions and intentions for a while now. For that he has been subjected to fines and lawsuits, and he himself has sued the AIFF multiple times.
This time though, with the AIFF seemingly set to relegate all existing top division clubs to second tier in an Executive Committee meeting on the 3rd of July, he has adopted a scorched earth approach, releasing almost all the pages of the original Master Rights Agreement document between All India Football Federation and their commercial partners FSDL (IMG-Reliance).
The document, which has 57 pages in total, describes how AIFF has handed over the commercial rights to everything in Indian football to FSDL, including the right to establish a new league and make it the most "senior and prestigious" one in the country, decide which teams play in it and which players get to sign for those teams; essentially giving FSDL sole control over every club and player in the country.
Ethically, this revelation raises questions over how clubs, who are supposed to be independent entities, can be put by the Federation in a situation where a private company has almost unfettered influence over their operations and footballing future, where purely on the basis on their own interests they can elevate and popularize clubs through their exclusive marketing machinery or shut them out from their hand-picked privileged collective, thereby ensuring the clubs they don't like will face much bigger financial hurdles and a threat of forceful relegation, even shutdown.
Bajaj, however, went one step further to assert that the AIFF-IMG Reliance deal won't stand in a court of law due to the unforcable terms in it and the conflicts of interest of those who signed it.
It appears several I-League clubs have aligned themselves with Bajaj's aggressive stance in the battle against AIFF. At a meeting in New Delhi, 7 I-League clubs put out a statement saying they would go to court if the Federation forcefully relegates them on 3rd July.
AIFF, in an uncharasteristically swift reply, addressed the escalating controversy in a statement that played down the rebel clubs' accusations,
"The AIFF reacting to the joint statement of Hero I-League clubs feel that it is very premature and unnecessary to pre-judge any action of the AIFF, and be commenting on the AIFF Executive Committee meeting on July 3, 2019 in advance.
The AIFF as a custodian of Indian Football has always endeavoured to balance to the interest of all stakeholders, and the Hero I-League, and its clubs. To say that the future of Hero I-League and the clubs will not be taken into consideration for any future decisions of the AIFF would be unfair.
As a matter of fact, a decision regarding the Hero Indian Super League becoming a league were also discussed with AFC, and FIFA before it was given recognition, and even for any future decisions AFC and FIFA will be duly consulted. In fact, during the last AFC AGM in Paris, the AIFF asked the AFC General Secretary Dato Windsor John to visit India specifically for Hero I-League issues.
Furthermore, while the decision of the AIFF Executive Committee cannot be pre-judged, it must also be borne in mind that AIFF has already spoken to its commercial partners FSDL about the concerns of the Hero I-League clubs.
It is surprising that the clubs have accused the AIFF President about not giving them any audience for their grievances. In fact, the only time they sought an audience was before the commencement of Hero Super Cup, where they were duly informed that the AIFF President will meet them any day between April 10-14, 2019, as the President had prior commitments for the FIFA Council Election on April 6 in Kuala Lumpur, as well as the Lok Sabha general elections.
Despite the assurance, the clubs did not meet the President, and rather prematurely pulled out of the Hero Super Cup, causing huge financial losses and negativity for a tournament for they had confirmed their participation. It must be mentioned that post pulling out of the Hero Super Cup no appointment has been sought by the Clubs till date.
As a custodian of Indian Football, the AIFF and the President are always happy to engage with all stakeholders including I-league Clubs for the betterment of Indian Football.
Needless to say, some club owners have taken to a vicious and malicious social media campaign against the AIFF and its President. We would like to caution the clubs to refrain from unnecessary accusations, and advice them to engage meaningfully for the betterment of Indian Football."
The fight however is not even close to simmering down. Chennai City FC, the current Champions of India who were not among the I-League clubs who boycotted the Super Cup, have also voiced their concern over the ongoing controversy.
It's worth pointing out that Chennai City FC have made history by becoming the first club from Tamil Nadu to win the top division league of Indian football. In January 2020, they will make further history when they beome the first club from their state to play in the AFC Champions League qualifiers. Given the circumstances, they have been reluctant to be involved in an all out conflict with the AIFF. But the impending axe of forceful relegation has forced them to speak up.
Further pressure is coming from Rahul Mehra, a renowned sports lawyer who earlier won a case against the AIFF that forced them to change their constitution. Mehra is accusing AIFF of planting a mole to spy on Dr S Y Quraishi's work on the new constitution for the Federation.
With the rhetoric escalating from all sides, things are slated to reach fever pitch as the D-Day of 3rd July gets nearer.