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I-League clubs refuse to give up top division status, present a 'roadmap' of demands to AIFF

THE I-LEAGUE CLUBS HAVE officially responded to AIFF President Mr Praful Patel's proposals for an interim solution for the I-League / ISL dual league issue made yesterday at a meeting in New Delhi.

The collective of clubs, who call themselves 'United I-League Clubs', are among those who boycotted the Super Cup 2019 and threatened to go to court against the Indian FA, demanding the introduction of a unified league where both ISL and I-League teams can compete on an even playing field.

Mr Patel had proposed continuing with the simultaneous organization of I-League and ISL for the next 2-3 years until a permanent solution can be worked out. But his words had hinted that AIFF may seek to take away I-League's status as the top division league and hand it to ISL, giving ISL winners a chance to play in the AFC Champions League Qualifiers (the biggest club championship in Asia) and I-League champions a place in the AFC Cup qualifiers (The second tier club championship in Asia); a move that would forcefully relegate all existing top division clubs.

Responding to that proposal, the clubs have agreed to the interim arrangmenet of I-League and ISL running simultaneously, but refused to give up their status as the top division league, and the AFC Champions League Qualifiers spot that I-League champions have.

Here's their official letter of response to the AIFF in full,

To, 

The General Secretary
All India Football Federation 

CC: The President, All India Football Federation

CC: The Chairman, Executive Committee
All India Football Federation 
 
4th July, 2019 

Subject: Joint letter from United I-League Clubs    

Dear Sir, 

At the outset, the United I-League Clubs would like to extended our sincerest thanks to the President, Mr. Praful Patel who took out the time from his busy schedule to listen to the grievances of the I-league clubs. The meeting took place yesterday at the Lalit Hotel and many points were constructively discussed with the President. He took the time to listen to representatives of all clubs present and addressed many issues in the spirit of working together for the betterment of Indian football. 

The President suggested that he would approach the AFC to continue with the two league situation for atleast another 2-3 till a proper solution for unified league is finalised  and implemented. Issues regarding the broadcast and scheduling of I-League for the coming season were also addressed.

The President made it clear that given the current situation of Indian football, sacrifices will have to be made by all stakeholders be it ISL, I-League or others. AIFF as a body has to keep interests of all its stakeholders in mind before taking any step. He praised the investments and contribution of the ISL since its inception in 2014 and expressed their justified desire of recognition from AFC as a proper league as currently the ISL holds status of national knock out cup competition, not the top division league. He also gave due credit to I-League which he agreed, has been the Top Division League of the country since 1996 (earlier called National Football League). I-League follows all statues of FIFA and AFC with proper promotion and relegation structure from/to Second Division league. The I-League is rich in tradition and history, from legacy clubs to new organically formed clubs who help to develop football at regional level and form special undying connect with their fans. The President agreed that the Indian football ecosystem cannot afford to lose its longest and best serving league. 

After the meeting with the President, the I-League clubs reconvened to discuss and deliberate on the suggestions of the President. In the spirit of compromise, I-League clubs agree to the broadcast plan and scheduling plans for the upcoming season even though it is not ideal. The I-League clubs also agree to continue with the two league system for another 3 years despite initially demanding immediately resolution with a unified league. 

However, the clubs are not in favour of giving away their rightfully earned and longstanding AFC Champions league spot till a proper plan for unified league is initiated. The United I-League clubs insist that the AFC Champions league spot must remain with the I-League as it is the I-League clubs that have (over the years) earned the AFC spots for India to enjoy today. The AIFF has already granted AFC Cup slot to ISL in 2017 and the same arrangement should continue till there is one unified league. 

The I-League clubs also suggest that these crucial decisions and developments should be clearly put in front of all parties (AFC, FIFA, FSDL) in the interest of the Indian football. It is recommended that a tri-partite agreement clearly outlining the way forward, be signed among AIFF, I-League clubs and FSDL for the upcoming three years to avoid recurring confrontations among the stakeholders. 

In conclusion, I-League clubs grateful for the meeting and ready to agree to all the suggestions made by the President for the way forward, except for giving away of our rightful AFC champions league spot. 

Please find attached a detailed summary of the Roadmap for the next three years agreed by all I-League clubs. 

Now with some clarity after meeting with the President, we I-League clubs look forward to implementations of the discussed measures and preparations for the upcoming season.

Thanking you. 

Best Regards, 

United I-league Clubs 

Quess East Bengal 
Mohun Bagan 
Churchill Brothers 
Aizwal FC 
Minerva Punjab FC 
Gokulam Kerala FC

Interestingly, the letter mentions only 6 of the clubs among the 7 clubs who boycotted Super Cup. The name of Imphal-based NEROCA FC is absent from the letter. The club, which has undergone a significant change in management recently, is understood to have taken a much less combative approach towards AIFF.

Chennai City, the current Champions of India, are not a part of the rebel group, although they have expressed concerns about the current scenario in their own letter to AIFF. Real Kashmir FC and newly promoted TRAU FC are also not among the signatories.

Along with the letter, the clubs have attached a document titled "Roadmap for League Football in India" which lists a series of counter-proposals for the consideration of the AIFF top brass. The document reads,

"1. A Tripartite agreement to be signed between AIFF, FSDL & I-League clubs giving details for the arrangement for the next 3 years.

2. I-league to be referred as the National Football league of India. 

3. I-League Champions to get AFC Champions League Slot.

4. I-League Committee to be formed immediately with representatives from AIFF and I-League clubs. This Committee would be solely responsible for taking decisions regarding I-League, 2nd Division league and Youth Leagues.

5. All matches of I-League to be shown live on HD Channel with improved production quality. (8 camera set up with specifications mentioned previously.)

6. I-League Committee shall negotiate and finalize the production house. 50% of the total cost of production to be borne by FSDL with the remaining 50% to be paid by AIFF.

7. I-League matches to be played at 5PM and 7PM kick off timings. (For non-floodlight venues kick of timings to be 2PM/3PM.)

8. Working Group to be formed with representations from AIFF, FSDL, I-League clubs and ISL clubs who would plan to introduce an unified league involving both I-League and ISL clubs with prom and relegation.

9. This would ensure that the top Indian Players end up playing 45-50 matches annually which is in line with the best global practice and is a minimum requirement for overall technical development of any player. (Currently the top Indian players gets to play maximum of 25-28 matches in a season.) 

10. The Roadmap needs to be approved by the AIFF Executive Committee and should be simultaneously announced, giving all details including present status of I-League and ISL also the future plan."

The response to AIFF returns the courtesy that Praful Patel showed to the I-League clubs in the meeting and does not take a combative stance. It includes no reference to any imminent legal action on the clubs' part. But it definitely asserts that the clubs are not willing to accept forceful relegation to second tier as an interim measure.

AIFF is expected to convene a meeting of its Executive Committee in New Delhi on 9th July where the matter of handing ISL the top division status, as per their commercial partner FSDL's demands, may be discussed. It remains to be seen whether the Federation takes the I-League clubs' response and counter-proposals into consideration before taking any action.

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