RECENTLY, A SENIOR MUMBAI FC official wrote an email directly to the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA regarding the direction Indian football has taken under the AIFF & IMG-Reliance partnership.
While it's remarkable in itself that a top division club should approach the continental administration directly with their grievances about the situation in the country's domestic football, the timing of the letter - amidst clubs shutting down, a PIL being filed against the AIFF and widespread dissatisfaction over the proposed model of "re-structuring" the country's league system - made it even more indicative that something was not right with Indian football; and many of the stakeholders were being pushed to take extreme steps to get their voice across.
The person who wrote the letter, Mumbai FC Deputy Vice President Atul Badgamia, is of the opinion that the email is not an act of confronting AIFF or putting them in a spot. Rather, it's about making sure their side of the story was shared with the people who were responsible for running and regulating the global sport. Speaking exclusively to TFG, he laid down their perspective,
"As a club it's our responsibility to tell AFC about our concerns. And I wasn't sure if the Asian body was keeping that close of a watch on the situation in India. So it was just a voicing on concern from our part about what AIFF and IMG-Reliance have proposed in their presentation back in May. They want ISL to be the top league in India, and I-League will turn into League One, the second division. So that leaves us clubs feeling like we are getting demoted, despite being with AIFF through thick and thin."
According to Mr Badgamia, the fault of the newly proposed system lies in the fact that money alone was deemed as a criteria for being a top division club. He said that the very nature of a real football league was to be capable of accomodating teams of various financial means in order to honour merit. And he believed that the ISL franchises' transition into becoming real clubs would bring their budgets closer to that of the I-League clubs,
"Of course the franchise fee is an isue. Why should there be a franchise fee for playing in the national league? Which federation in the world does that? It's pointless to pay a franchise fee... look, we're not against ISL or something. They're here serving Indian football, like us. So why don't we join hands and play in a single league? Why should I-League clubs get relegated like this? I understand that ISL teams have huge budgets but once they come under the AFC umbrella they will also have to cut down on their budget."
The Mumbai FC dy. vice president said that like the Goan clubs, they also find it hard to accept that ISL can promptly take over as the top division league and leave the I-League clubs down in a lower league,
"Why on earth should we play in the second division? We have been there already! We paid our dues, playing there, and earning our promotion to the top tier. We deserve to be here, and our right as a license-holding dutiful football club should be respected."
He pointed out how, when ISL was introduced, the I-League clubs were repeatedly assured that they would always remain the priority of the governing body as I-League was the only league recognized by FIFA, and the undisputed top division. The "re-structuring" proposal, according to him, undermined that promise,
"Even until recently Praful Patel and others have been saying that I-League is always going to be the top division, that ISL is just a tournament, and now they've completely gone back on that. And it happened out of nowhere... AIFF should understand, there are so many clubs who have been serving Indian football through some really tough times, some for decades. Without promotion-relegation in the top division, we get totally left out of it. Why? It's not like the ISL is much better. They use the same Indian players as us. The only difference is they put in more money to sign more foreigners. But we all know how many of them are here to play, and how many are marketing moves. And their one-club-per-city rule doesn't make sense, where in the world do you have such a rule?"
Atul also found it hard to believe that the new second division, League One, would receive fair treatment from IMG-Reliance in terms of marketing and showcasing; given the way they have handled the I-League,
"In the presentation they told us that League One clubs will get good time slots to play in, that the matches will be broadcast, that there will be a minimum guaranteed share from the central sponsorship, but haven't told us the amount so we can't be sure how we feel about that... but ISL and League One will run simultaneously. Are you telling me they will put that much of an effort to promote League One during ISL?"
Asked what would be their next move if all this effort to convince AIFF and IMG-Reliance to open up the new top division league to accomodate all I-League clubs ultimately did not bear fruit, the Mumbai FC dy. VP did not want to speculate,
"I'm talking to our management... we're going to be meeting next week, to discuss all this and decide on what to do next. It's not my call. It has to come from them."
And he was eager to wash his hands off the rumours going around about Mumbai FC contemplating a merger with Mumbai City FC, the ISL franchise from the Maharashtra capital,
"I have no idea about that. If it's happening, it must be at the top of the management chain. I'm not saying yes or no, but I have no idea about that."
But Mr Badgamia accepted that the getting an open league at the top division was going to be tricky at this point, given the agreements IMG-Reliance signed with the ISL franchises,
"If they allow promotion-relegation, I don't know which ISL team will stand being relegated. Whatever communication we have had with AIFF, they cited those contractual obligations with ISL teams. So at this point, nothing is clear at all... my view is whatever is done in the end, it has to be with all the stakeholders being taken into account."
He said that the Cooperage-based club will keep a close eye on the situation; and he was happy with the fact that AIFF had proposed the formation of a working committee where all the stakeholders will be represented, along with AFC and FIFA.
It appears, he said, the whole picture is likely to get clearer in a month or two. And for the sake of Mumbai FC and other clubs like it, he hoped that it turns out to be brighter than it seems at the moment.