CONFIRMING LONG EXISTING MEDIA REPORTS, All India Football Federation President Mr Praful Patel has indicated that the Federation will indeed move to forcefully relegate India's top division clubs.
Bengali newspaper Sangbad Pratidin reported last month that AIFF was going to make ISL the top flight league of the country, pressurized by their commercial partners FSDL who have halted their scheduled payments to the Federation this year, which threatened to freeze the operation of football in India, to ensure compliance.
After months of delaying, Mr Praful Patel finally met representatives of the I-League clubs today, seven of whom have been on a warpath to avoid forceful relegation to second tier that went as far as them boycotting Super Cup 2019 and incurring huge fines as a result of it.
After the meeting in New Delhi, the AIFF President told reporters that he would seek permission from AFC to run I-League and ISL simultaneously for the next 3 years before a solution to the structural issues can be worked out; apparently continuing the current situation as a transition phase. This, at first glance, appears to be a perfectly fair step to take.
But when asked about details of that arrangement, he revealed some murkier impending actions underneath the surface.
Asked about which league gets ACL qualifier spot, Patel says it is a minor issue. "The more important thing is to get recognition from AFC for I-League. They didn't agree for current arrangement forever. Need to convince them first."
He avoided answering the question about whether the slot for AFC Champions League Qualifiers, which currently belongs to to the champions of I-League, will be handed over to ISL winners, by saying it was a "minor issue," when in fact it was the most important detail of the arrangement he was proposing.
The ACL qualifier slot, being the highest Asian spot available for Indian clubs, goes to the champions of the top division league of the country. Currently, I-League is the official top league, hence the spot goes to the I-League champions.
Faced with the question about who will get this coveted spot next season onwards, Mr Patel suddenly changed the subject to getting "recognition from AFC for I-League."
Here's the problem with that - AFC has always recognized I-League as the top division league of India, since it replaced NFL in 2007. Why would Mr Patel have to work to get something that's already there?
The only reason AIFF would have to get I-League recognized, is if it gets de-recognized first. And the only way I-League gets de-recognized is if AIFF tells AFC to recognize ISL as the top division league in its stead.
So the Federation, at FSDL's behest, wants to take away I-League's AFC recognition first, then appease the clubs by giving it back. A clever ploy, no doubt, only it wasn't veiled enough to avoid detection.
But here's where things become a little more complicated.
AFC does not recognize parallel leagues. Only one league is recognized as the top division. Currently, ISL winners get to play in AFC Cup qualifiers because AFC recognizes it as a cup tournament; the status that belonged to Federation Cup. (AIFF killed Federation Cup to transfer the spot to ISL)
So if ISL is to be the top division with the ACL Qualifier spot and I-League still get an AFC Cup spot, that means I-League would have to be recognized as ISL is recognized now: a cup tournament.
Which means, I-League's status may be worse than a lower league. It may not remain a league at all.
And since I-League is directly tied to 2nd Division League by promotion-relegation, which is tied to state leagues by criteria (New clubs have to play in top tier state leagues and fulfill certain conditions to become eligible to participate in 2nd Division Leagues), this would mean that none of them would have the status of leagues any more.
The only competition officially recognized by AFC as a league in India will be Indian Super League; a tournament with semi-finals and finals and no promotion-relegation.
This is not only a huge commercial blow to I-League clubs - who, on top of suffering due to I-League not being promoted by its organizers and given unfavourable kick-off times, will further lose sponsorship money since they will not be top flight clubs any more - but a devaluation of all of domestic football, going down to the local leagues.
And all of this is being done just so that FSDL can change the narrative around ISL from "popularity sliding, franchises moving, selling or shutting down" to "promoted to top division status."
The very spirit of the sport will be severely compromised, to benefit the short term bottom line of a corporation.
While Mr Praful Patel has dismissed this aspect of the impending move as "academic" and "blown out of proportion", the fallout from this will be very real. Undeserved, forceful relegation will hit clubs like Aizawl FC, Real Kashmir, Minerva Punjab, NEROCA, Chennai City FC and Gokulam Kerala FC hard. All of them will rope in less money from sponsors. For some of them, it may take away the will to carry on. At least a few of them will die, pull out or take the Lajong route to field a weak team and go down to 2nd Division within the next couple of years.
It wouldn't be far-fetched to assume that AIFF not only expects this but counts on it. The Federation, and their commercial FSDL, have showed interest in getting East Bengal and Mohun Bagan to enter ISL, but they have never been keen on the others. Creating a situation where they fade away from the national scene within the next couple of years serves their interests.
Meanwhile, AIFF can play the good cop and take credit for getting I-League an AFC Cup qualifier spot; which is less than what I-League had before, but that won't stop them from spinning the narrative.
So the trap has been set. I-League clubs have been offered some interim sweeteners like "better scheduling" and "high quality telecast" to make them accept this move. Both AIFF and FSDL know that once ISL gets AFC's seal of approval as the new top division, it cannot be reversed; I-League clubs will have no power left to negotiate or ask for their due even if AIFF goes back on their promises.
The only question that remains is, what will the I-League clubs do now?
The relevant portion of the joint statement from AIFF and I-League clubs after today's meeting reads,
"AIFF and the Hero I-League Clubs have agreed and will work together to find a solution to all issues including the calendar, scheduling, broadcasting, and the continuation of the Hero I-League for a defined period, till the roadmap is ascertained in a time-bound manner in consultation with FSDL, and the AFC.
A lot of other meaningful issues were also simultaneously discussed, and it is hoped that all issues regarding the future of the Hero I-League vis-à-vis the Hero Indian Super League will be resolved shortly."
That's a lot of "hoping", and there's no mention of any concrete solution or agreement being reached.
The I-League clubs' alliance has threatened to go to court if they are forcefully relegated from top division league. AIFF has now passed the buck to them. They can either make their move now, or accept their fate, and slowly lose everything they have held dear and fought to build.
Perhaps a lucky few will be allowed to enter ISL in the future. For others, there's no such light at the end of the tunnel.
The I-League clubs are expected to officially respond to Praful Patel's suggestions on 4th of July.
The AIFF Executive Committee meeting is reportedly set to take place on 9th July, during the first ICC Cricket World Cup semi-final, which ensures if they take a drastic measure it will get minimal media coverage.
The lines have been drawn.
UPDATE: On the evening of 4th of July, the rebel I-League clubs' collective officially responded to AIFF, refusing to accept forceful relegation, and presenting their own "roadmap for league football in India" that lists a set of actions they demand the Federation should take to deal with the current crisis in Indian football. Read their full statement here.