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Indian Football’s Unnatural Evolution: The Survival of the Richest

India’s national football league, the I-League, is on the verge of being obliterated in favour of the Indian Super League (ISL). The twist in the tale is that it’s downfall will not be due to a lack of interest or market forces, but sabotage from within.
Indian football and the I-League vs Indian Super League (ISL) battle

AIFF’s contract with FSDL (a subsidiary of IMG-Reliance where Star Network is also partner) stipulates that the Indian Super League (ISL) should be made the top league of Indian football within five years, putting the I-League’s future in jeopardy.

In a 2017 episode of BBC’s highly acclaimed Planet Earth series, there is a segment about newly hatched iguanas and the perils of survival when born away from your natural habitat. The segment’s climactic scene is that of one freshly hatched young, racing away from an army of racer snakes to escape to its natural habitat, the ocean. It is a 30 second ‘chase’ sequence that has been harvested into a thousand memes (none more entertaining, than the one with Spanish commentary for a Messi goal). At the end, with the iguana finally gazing at the horizon, David Attenborough’s voice interjects. “The lucky survivors,” he says, “can learn early, the ways of this hostile planet. For one to survive, others must die.” A line that may as well have been The All India Football Federation’s (AIFF’s) motto.

If recent news in the Indian football world is of any worth, then slowly it is becoming clear who they favour to survive. 

In a blur that has been the Indian football off-season, the past week has been standout. Not just for the quality of ‘breaking news’ that has emerged everyday, but also for the quality of redressals, denials and corrections issued on a day-to-day basis by many members of the two leagues that act as floats for Indian football today.

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The first bit of news was the long speculated dissolution of Indian Super League (ISL) club FC Pune City, owned by the Wadhawan group. Aaron Hughes and Ashique Kuruniyan’s legal notices as well as complaints lodged with the AIFF, demanding completion of payments for the previous season, finally seemed to have borne fruit. The club had decided to fold up, shift base, change ownership and pass on the dues to an interested party in Hyderabad.

Except not. Because, of course. Soon enough, the Wadhawan group released a statement claiming, that were not, in fact, folding up but were only shifting bases, changing ownership (partly) and hoping to raise capital through selling a stake of the club. 

For those in football familiar with this kind of posturing it could only mean one thing. FC Pune City would soon cease to exist. Regardless, players contracted to them (and all interested third parties) were told in no certain terms to keep their away from transfer action, and hands where we can see them please. To which, Chennai City FC, the champions of the I-League, had the perfect response (given below).

Move on then everyone. A week has seven days, and the AIFF has enough news to fill each day twice. 

Almost immediately then came the bigger dhamaka, a statement from Kushal Das, general secretary of the AIFF himself, about contractual requirements that may determine the hierarchy of the Indian domestic leagues next season. Das’ statement was steeped in innocence. It was that of a man who had discovered, suddenly and randomly surprising even his own innocent self, that oh look, in fact, the contract the AIFF had signed with FSDL (a subsidiary of IMG-Reliance where Star is also partner) they were obliged to name the ISL as the top league of the country, within five years.

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“It is in the contract,” Das innocently said, “Initially we felt, let the tournament happen and then we will see. After five years, we have to honour the contract. Let the executive committee decide.”

The AIFF general secretary's choice of words are instructive. Casting aside the obvious unfairness and unbelievably hypocritical problems with the contract itself, his assertion ‘let the tournament happen and then we will see’, points to the short sightedness of the people who run football in this country. ‘Let the executive committee decide’ is another great passing of the buck. Pass it till the music stops. The person holding it will do the dance. Preferably to the tune of FSDL.

The contract in contention is the Master Rights Agreement, signed between the AIFF and Football Sports Development Ltd. (initially between the AIFF and IMG-Reliance). In it the AIFF agrees that the new league (the ISL) would be the ‘senior and prestigious football league in India’. Another clause: The existing league (the I-League) could be ‘reconstituted, replaced, and/or discontinued (temporarily or permanently). The AIFF also grants FSDL full rights to decide the format, rules and structure of the league itself.

Throughout the season and indeed even previous seasons there has been speculation that the I-League was doomed. New owners pumping money in were fools in silk, and older clubs tightening purse strings were staring at the inevitable. I-League clubs had sought a meeting with the AIFF President Praful Patel, to seek assurances about the continuity of the league beyond the current season, and upon not getting a time slot, pulled out of the Super Cup in protest. 

At the time, the president gave them a time slot once the season had been fully completed (although it is tough to say the season is completed when one game, the rescheduled fixture between Real Kashmir FC and Minerva Punjab, still remains unplayed), and he had returned from his travels. Travels in which he was elected to the FIFA Executive Council. By then though the clubs had had enough. Almost immediately the AIFF promised serious repercussions for the pullout. 

And this week, they announced them. 27.5 lakh of them. For six clubs that defied them.

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Inevitably voices have been raised. And chief among them (as usual) has been that of Ranjit Bajaj, the owner of Minerva Punjab FC who took to Twitter to not just let his displeasure known but to also issue a belligerent response. He had his hands on the ‘secret’ Master Rights Agreement and promised to reveal how the ‘AIFF had sold Indian football away’ in 10 page episodes, online.

Representatives of seven I-League clubs met in New Delhi to issue a joint statement, a last stand of sorts, promising that upon the official announcement that takes away their status, appropriate courts would be approached and legal notices served. 

Within hours the AIFF produced its own response. A release which asks everyone to calm their heads and wait while they deliberate over a solution. “While the decision of the AIFF Executive Committee cannot be per-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,” the statement says. 

In a thinly veiled swipe at Bajaj, it also cautions the reader against “some club owners [who] 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 advise them to engage meaningfully for the betterment of Indian Football.”

The problem for the AIFF though, in truth, is that their hands are tied. The contract is non-negotiable and leaves them in a corner with no place to maneuver. Either the I-League goes down, or the ISL packs ship. There are no two ways about this. What is perhaps most galling is the manner in which they have treated the I-League clubs and the lack of transparency that has led to this.

Surely it would have been worth their while to sit down and discuss the situation reasonably — anytime over the past five years mind — and come to an acceptable compromise. If not, it may have even been acceptable to inform the I-League clubs of these statutes in advance, and leave it to them to decide their own way ahead. The lack of information meant everyone was dealing in conspiracy and speculation, never the best way to resolve conflict. 

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However, the I-League clubs cannot be absolved of fault and heralded as the pillars of Indian football. Doing so will comfortably whitewash the decades of negligence that brought FSDL into the game in the first place. But, to paraphrase India’s head coach Igor Stimac, from his first press conference, money can buy excellence, but not tradition. All that history, the insight, the money and the cultivated fan bases will fall to ruins now, for clubs that — as witnessed with Pune City FC — can barely hold their heads above water themselves. This isn’t light at the end of a tunnel. It is an oncoming train. 

With AIFF’s Executive Committee set to meet and take a decision, for now, the chase continues. Its logical end is within sight, but the music is not at crescendo yet. The favoured iguana, inches closer to the finish line, knowing in its head, that its survival is guaranteed to ensure a sibling will get eaten up.

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