On Tuesday, 17 May, the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) and its marketing partners IMG-Reliance, in a meeting in New Delhi, made a presentation to stakeholders of Indian football on the layout of the league structure in India starting from the 2017-18 season.
The blueprint for the new league stated that the Indian Super League (ISL) will be India's new top-flight starting from late-2017. It will be a closed league without any promotion or relegation.
On the other hand, the I-League, India's current premier football league, will be the second tier in the Indian league structure. The current 2nd Division League will be rebranded to League Two, and will be the third tier of Indian football. There will be promotion and relegation within these two divisions.
The Federation Cup, India's premier cup competition, is also set to be scrapped, and a new Super Cup, likely to be completed by eight teams in the final phase, will be held after the culmination of the ISL season.
Following Tuesday's meeting, I-League clubs have come together to vehemently oppose the proposal. It has been learnt through credible sources that the clubs are contemplating legal recourse over the proposed restructuring.
AIFF officials unhappy with 'IMG-R puppet' Praful Patel
On Wednesday evening, a senior AIFF official told Catch News that AIFF had been bullied by IMG-Reliance subsidiary Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) into making the proposal, despite severe displeasure among senior officials of the governing body.
While the number of I-League clubs who will be permitted into ISL is yet to be ascertained, the fate of many prominent clubs, including that of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, is now in a quandary.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official lashed out at AIFF President Praful Patel and IMG-R. "The AIFF is now completely under the control of IMG-Reliance's FSDL. The governing body has been forced into dancing to the tunes of IMG-R," he said.
"IMG-Reliance has the responsibility of marketing not only the ISL but other AIFF-managed competitions like I-League and Federations Cup as well. Have you seen any kind of marketing for this Sunday's Federation Cup final?
"We have noticed that Praful Patel has now become a puppet of IMG-R, which is why you will notice that most of our decisions go in the latter's favour these days.
"In the last five years of his presidency, we have fallen down the international footballing ladder. Most AIFF officials are extremely unhappy with him and with the way the organisation has been functioning recently," the official said.
"FSDL itself has no respect whatsoever for the governing body. It gives absolutely no importance to what the AIFF does or says. Even recently, when FC Goa were found guilty of misconduct by the AIFF Disciplinary Committee, they took it upon themselves to take a parallel decision on the matter, completely disregarding what our own committee had said. The future of AIFF as a decision-making governing body remains doubtful," he raged.
How do the proposed changes affect Indian football?
With ISL being a closed league, it remains to be seen how clubs, with ambitions of playing in the top-flight, and not currently in the ISL, react to the proposed changes.
The two I-League clubs from Goa, Sporting Clube and Salgaocar, have already called an emergency meeting to decide the future course of action, with the two clubs mulling the options of disbanding their teams if push comes to shove.
"You cannot have 16 teams at the top simply because we do not have enough players," Sundar Raman, the COO of Reliance (sports) was quoted as saying in a report in Times of India.
Raman's comment is a clear indication that the new top-flight won't be inducting too many outsider clubs anytime soon. With growing unemployment among professional footballers in India following the advent of ISL, Raman's statement is unlikely to inspire much confidence among them.
In the same report, Praful Patel said, "There are contractual obligations that have to be respected,". The AIFF supremo's comment is a veiled reference to the agreement between franchises and ISL ensuring immunity from relegation for a period of 10 years.
With a closed top-flight on the corner, even Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have now been forced into a corner. An East Bengal official told Catch News that the club was undecided on its future, and would take a decision soon.
Players to feel the heat?
Mizoram Football Association (MFA) secretary Lalnghinglova Hmar, one of the brains behind the highly-successful Mizoram Premier League (MPL), waded into the debate on Wednesday, saying he had doubts about the feasibility of the ISL.
Speaking to Catch News, he said, "Our clubs do not have the financial muscle to participate in the ISL. So it shouldn't have any significant impact on our local clubs at the moment."
"However, I personally am not in favour of the ISL system. I don't think it can replace the traditional structure. You can not demean the traditional fanbase. No game in the tournament can beat the Kolkata derby, or the passion associated with the traditional clubs," he stated.
"With a low number of teams, you will cut down on the opportunities available to Indian players, especially the younger ones, to gain some top-flight experience.
"With so many young players coming up every year, including from Mizoram, it will be difficult for them to break into the national team, with little playing playing time into the top two tiers," he added.
His sentiment was echoed by Nikhil Sharma, COO of Anglian Group, which has a stake in Shillong Lajong, including other footballing entities. Sharma said that the number of foreign players will have to be curtailed and the number of clubs in the top three tiers will have to be increased in the long run to address the problem.
"I do, however, see some positives in the proposed plan. The regular broadcast of ISL games in a long, sustainable period should help the league's case. The League 1 can be modelled around English Championship (second tier of English football) if the clubs can take advantage of their local fan bases to bring in a local fervour, and manage their finances well."
What now for Indian football?
Anoop Abraham, former General Manager of Royal Wahingdoh, which pulled out of the I-League last year despite finishing third in their debut season, believes it is not all bad for the Northeastern clubs.
"Clubs in the Northeast operate on low budgets. They will have opportunities to showcase their abilities, get recognition and perhaps transfer fees for players. As for top fight participation, these clubs will have the opportunity to contest the Super Cup. So, in a sense, it is really a more practical and an emotionally detached decision by AIFF," he added.
However, in many other parts of the country, traditional clubs seem to be fighting a losing battle, as ISL gets set to become India's top division. A mass exodus of these clubs may not be an unlikely scenario if a merger of the ISL and I-League does not take place.
Serious questions, however, must be asked on the sustainability of the ISL model itself. With all franchises incurring heavy losses in their first two seasons, a longer season will entail scaling down of operations.
Will clubs be able to sign the likes of Carlos, Del Piero then? Will the interest levels seen in the first two seasons dip with the onset of longer seasons and with clubs cutting down on expenditures? It remains to be seen.
On the other hand, things seem to have gone downhill at the Football House in Dwarka. At a time when AIFF has been battling a series of crises, its decision-making authority in Indian football has once again come under the scanner. In the Praful Patel wonderland we live in today, a sudden upheaval like this, however, is hardly an aberration from the norm.