THE ALL INDIA FOOTBALL FEDERATION unilaterally moved to relegate all existing top division clubs to lower tier status today.
The move more or less confirms long existing concerns and media reports that the AIFF are about to act on their commercial partners FSDL's insistance that ISL should be handed the status of being the top division football league of India.
The change of status is signified by the AFC Champions League qualifier spot, earned for Indian football by I-League clubs like East Bengal, Dempo SC and Bengaluru FC through their top four and top two finishes in the AFC Cup, being snatched away from I-League champions and given away to ISL winners.
The AIFF Executive Committee met today in New Delhi to make the decision official.
The Federation conveyed the outcome of that meeting in the following press release,
"THE AIFF Executive Committee met today (July 9, 2019) in Delhi and discussed various issues including the request letter that the champions of Hero Indian Super League would get a berth for the qualifiers of the AFC Champions League.
In light of the MRA as well as the fact that in the last 5 years the entire Indian National squad are mostly being signed/playing for the Hero Indian Super League clubs, and the TV viewership and in stadia audience having grown far more substantially vis a vi the Hero I-League, and the Hero Indian Super League clubs complying with the entire AFC Club licensing criteria, including strong Grassroots, and Youth Development Programmes which had also been certified by the Asian Football Confederation, the AIFF Executive Committee recommends to the Asian Football Confederation to positively consider their request.
Further, as the issues of Hero I-League, Hero I-League clubs and the future roadmap of Indian Football including a unified League are important issues which need to be resolved in a time bound manner, the AIFF Executive Committee requests the Asian Football Confederation to send a high-level delegation led by Dato Windsor John, General Secretary, Asian Football Confederation at the earliest to discuss this issue with all stakeholders of Indian Football including our commercial partners FSDL to arrive at a fair solution.
In the meeting of the Hero I-League clubs along with the AIFF President, and the General Secretary, held on July 3, 2019 in Delhi, some broad proposals were discussed, and a joint statement was issued by AIFF and the Hero I-League clubs.
These amicable discussions were to be presented to the AFC Executive Committee for further consideration. However, on July 8, 2019, the clubs via a letter released to the media have taken a contrary stand which is not in the spirit with which the AIFF President had met the clubs. As a result, we have therefore, asked the AFC to find a possible solution.
Furthermore, all future official communications from the AIFF are to be addressed by the media department, apart from the General Secretary, and the President himself."
The last paragraph is an effective gag order on all AIFF officials, apart from AIFF President Mr Praful Patel and General Secretary Mr Kushal Das, from speaking about it. AIFF's plan to forcefully push top division clubs down to second tier was leaked last month to the press by anonymous Federation sources; and it seems to have not gone down well with the Indian FA.
The release further makes it clear that AIFF will ask AFC to make ISL the top flight and hand them the AFC Champions League qualifier slot on a platter.
It does not, however, say a word about Praful Patel's statement made on July 3rd that the Federation would try to at least get AFC to give I-League champions an AFC Cup qualifier slot (originally meant for Federation Cup winners, currently given to ISL winners), which creates further confusion over what the current top division clubs will be left with once the dust settles.
This move from AIFF does not come into effect until AFC officially put their seal of approval on it.
Since ISL is not expected to adopt promotion-relegation in the foreseeable future, making it the top flight effectively discourages all lower league clubs from investing in their teams and being competitive to their fullest capabilities, since even if they become champions they will not be promoted to the top flight.
This may also cause potential investors looking to start new clubs from to back off from participating in a closed down system that offers no real rewards for their efforts.
To solve this mess the AIFF has passed the buck to AFC, inviting the continental body's General Secretary Dato Windsor John to come to India, listen to all stakeholders including I-League clubs and FSDL, and make a final decision on coming up with a concrete roadmap for Indian football.
For now, however, AIFF and FSDL have backed the I-League clubs into a corner; especially the rebel alliance of independent clubs who have been vocally opposing this impending move and even threatening litigation over it.
It remains to be seen how the aforementioned alliance of clubs, which includes the likes of East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Minerva Punjab, Gokulam Kerala, Aizawl FC and Churchill Brothers FC, will react to this development.