By Jagannath Chatterjee
New Delhi, June 25 (IANS) Reacting to the threat of the I-League clubs on Monday that they will be forced to take legal steps if the Indian Super League (ISL) is made the primary league of India, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) said that the decision was not only pre-mature, but also unnecessary. The federation said that a call would only be taken in the Executive Committee meeting on July 3 and any statement before that was unwarranted.
But then, to be honest, who fuelled the fire? It was none other than AIFF general secretary Kushal Das when in an interview on June 20 said that as per the Master Rights Agreement (MRA) signed between AIFF and IMG-Reliance and now between AIFF and Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) a subsidiary of IMG-Reliance where Star is also a partner, ISL was always meant to be the “most senior and prestigious football league in India”.
It was this very comment that saw the unified I-League clubs first make their displeasure known when IANS contacted them and then they went on to hold a meeting in the Capital on Monday.
Before the interview from Das, the I-League club officials had time and again said that they were ready to wait and watch how things unfold and if the AIFF will merge both the leagues or make the ISL the top league. But the comment from the general secretary was like the last nail in the coffin.
The interview on Thursday wasn’t the first time that the general secretary had made his personal preferences known. In his interview with IANS on April 25, Das while highlighting the contribution of the ISL said: “We must wake up and smell the coffee.”
Two days prior to that, on April 23, Das had said that the I-League clubs were shooting themselves in the foot by skipping the Super Cup. This after seven I-League clubs decided to boycott the tournament demanding an immediate meeting with AIFF president Praful Patel to decide the future roadmap of Indian football.
“Instead of coming together to discuss the matter with the federation and our marketing partners, they (the clubs) have almost tried to rebel against the federation. That won’t help. They wanted to meet the president and the president always said he would meet them. In fact, he was busy and was travelling. He sent a communication in this effect. He said he would meet them between April 10 and 15. Now he is upset that the clubs still rebelled against the whole thing and did not play the Super Cup. Not playing football is not a solution,” Das had said.
But the question then is simple. If the AIFF has wanted to work closely with the I-League clubs and help promote Indian football, what are these comments all about? Were the repeated attempts to ask the I-League clubs to fall in line or fall by the wayside a ploy to understand the reactions of the I-League clubs?
In its rebuttal to the joint statement of I-League clubs, the AIFF also expressed surprise that the clubs accused the president of not giving them any audience for their grievances. But there is more to this than what meets the eye.
While it cannot be denied that the president agreed to meet the clubs any day between April 10-15, 2019 (tentatively April 14) and the same was conveyed to the I-League clubs by Das on March 21, what one seems to ignore is that the qualifying round of the Super Cup had already started on March 15 and Minerva Punjab FC, Aizawl FC and Gokulam Kerala FC had withdrawn even after reaching Bhubaneswar. For the other clubs to then go ahead and play in the main round would have been nothing but betrayal.
In a gesture of solidarity, Debashis Dutta, Director, Mohun Bagan club, on behalf of the unified clubs wrote to the AIFF general secretary the same day – March 21 — expressing readiness to participate. But he put a rider that the qualifying rounds needed to be re-played. The AIFF’s refusal to agree to the proposal saw the clubs skip the tournament.
But the biggest question that still remains unanswered is the claim from AIFF over the last couple of seasons that they were looking at the idea of merging the two leagues. If the contract with regards to the ISL clearly spoke of making it the top league of the country, why this hogwash?
(Jagannath Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])