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Indian Football’s Super Cup Drama: I-League Clubs Pull Out of Pull-Out

On March 13 a press release stated that seven I-League clubs — Minerva Punjab FC, Quess East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, NEROCA FC, Gokulam Kerala, Aizawl FC and champions Chennai City FC — decided to pull out of the Super Cup, to be played in Bhubaneswar later this month. The tournament also involves Indian Super League (ISL) clubs.
East Bengal fans during an I-League football match earlier in the season

While the Indian Super League (ISL) has enjoyed prime slots and social media blitzkriegs, it is the I-League, with legacy clubs such as East Bengal (in pic) as well as new units such as Gokulam Kerala and Chennai City FC, which has attracted the fans into

Football will continue to kick away in the Indian sporting wilderness. A week after the excitement of Chennai City FC’s fast paced, front footed, attacking brand of football winning the I-League title — and creating, in turn, a joyous storyline out of almost nowhere — a tremor struck.

As rumour became fact — via a press release — everyone involved in the football fraternity was intimated that seven I-League clubs were pulling out of the second edition of the Super Cup to be played in Bhubaneswar later this month.

The press release, on March 13, explained that the seven clubs — Minerva Punjab FC, Quess East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, NEROCA FC, Gokulam Kerala, Aizawl FC and Chennai City FC — decided to pull out of the event because of the lack of clarity about the I-League’s future and lack of response from Kushal Das, the general secretary of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) regarding a meeting they had asked for via a letter dated February 18, 2019. Apart from these two reasons, the more immediate concern of their inability to find sponsors, and the lack of an agenda regarding grassroot football in India were also mentioned.

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By the end of the day, though, East Bengal had already pulled out of the pull-out — a double negative that fits them — circulating a second release.

In fact, the East Bengal release said more — that they had only got to know of the pull-out from newspapers and they didn’t have anything to do with the decision.

“We have the tradition and legacy to not step back from participating keeping in view of the fact that discrepancies, if any, can be sorted out by discussions and deliberations,” read the release. Insiders, however, revealed that the real reason for East Bengal developing cold feet had more to to with their internal board dynamics. Half of the eight-member board of the club were not informed about the pull-out and that half, comprising of sponsors Quess, wanted the side to play the tournament.

In the East Bengal microcosm sits the perfect illustration of Indian football itself. One single entity’s own desires so brutally divided that even a simple yes or no question becomes a dilemma. The script invariably serves takes a familiar route: ‘maybe we are all better off if we can cool our heads off and discuss this, deliberate this, and us more than anyone else considering our history, you see…’

Deliberations and discussions are exactly the things the AIFF is shying away from, or rather, has shied away from the day they launched the Indian Super League (ISL) and discarded — but not — the I-League. They are playing the role of that legendary Bengali hero, the central name of multiple Bollywood movies, that drunk, uncommitted, unhappy loner, Devdas. Tied to the missus, bound to the mistress. And never the twain shall meet.

Don’t tell the missus though. Keep her hanging.

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And so, by Thursday (March 14) afternoon, the worst of the storm had passed. Over the course of the day, as Newsclick contacted different people in different spots in the hierarchy of various I-League clubs, several different pictures suddenly began to emerge.

In one of the first conversations of the day, NEROCA FC’s CEO Naoba Thangjam stood by his team’s withdrawal and was clear about why it needed to happen and what the purpose behind it all was.

“We submitted a letter to the general secretary in February, asking for a meeting to clear the air,” he said. “He hasn’t done us the courtesy of responding or even getting his secretary to respond to this letter and that is just disrespectful.”

Disrespect. Well, that is at the core of this whole drama. All the I-League clubs feel disrespected, tradition and legacy be damned.

Even before the letter asking for a meeting was composed, another statement by a consortium of clubs was released. In it, the clubs urged the I-League to take a stand in the broadcast row with Star Network, and not sit back and bog down to those above it in the power rankings to demean India’s older football pyramid structure. The indecision, the confusion and the lack of clarity of the I-League’s future leaves not just the owners in a flux but the entire ecosystem around it too.

Football clubs, after all, are not just initials on a crest to be branded about for 90 minutes every week. They exist to support and nourish the livelihoods of multiple human beings fulfilling several roles to help it function.

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“If we don’t know which division we are playing in, or if there will be a united structure, then what kind of guarantees can we give our players, our coaches or indeed our sponsors. A difference in league structure means a difference in visibility, and it affects us at all levels,” Naoba lamented.

But these simple concerns were beyond the purview of the people in charge of the I-League, of course, and by the men in charge of the AIFF. The I-League conveniently washed its hands off the row, saying only that they had no role to play in the Super Cup and all of these problems will be addressed by the AIFF.

The federation, on its part, sent out a message to all the clubs in dissent saying the meeting will happen, but only once Praful Patel, president of the AIFF, got back to the country.

As the day went on, the clubs’ stories also fell apart slowly. Three different people involved at board level in East Bengal were contacted and all three refused to answer questions. They asked us to refer the press release.

“We stand by what we said in the release,” said Sanjit Sen, CEO, of East Bengal.

“We have released a statement, and that is all I have to say on the matter,” said Kalyan Majumder, the club’s director.

Which release though? By then the lines were cut.

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Other sources, who refused to be named, cited this whole issue as a rake job involving Minerva Punjab FC. They said that all the teams — barring Minerva — mentioned in the withdrawal release had in fact attended the pre-tournament briefing in Bhubaneswar. Minerva’s team was practicing in Bhubaneswar too. Although seeing that they have an AFC Cup commitment in the city, what they were preparing for was unclear.

If there is one thing clear in this whole episode it is this. There is no unified structure for growth in Indian football. The ISL goes on, unhindered by all the chaos beneath it. And make no mistake, all of this is beneath it. They play in millions, where the AIFF and the I-League juggle coins.

Within the AIFF there is no ability, forget unity to take a call on the direction this will go towards. One way or another, at worst they will make a call that will tick off a few. But all that everyone wants to know is, which few they will tick off. Then again, going by recent precedents, we all know who they are likely to be. Their “hands are bound” by many variables, including contractual obligations, revealed a senior functionary of the federation.

Then again, as of now, they are dithering to make their move. After the Super Cup they will have the time to do so, but then they will also have the time to dither more.

And the I-League. Alas. If this was their last stand, then this was all foam no beer. Less Thermopylae more Haldighati. This is the Peter Principle. Everyone rises to their level of incompetence. And in the Indian sporting spectrum, football has risen to this.

(Additional reporting from Leslie Xavier)

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