Lack of clarity on I-League's future compelled us to pull out: Royal Wahingdoh MD Dominic Sutnga
Shillong-based professional football outfit Royal Wahingdoh shocked the followers of the domestic game on Saturday, 21 November, when the club decided to withdraw from the I-League. The decision came barely a few months after the Wahingdoh's unprecedented third place finish in the league in the club's debut season in the top flight.
A couple of months back, speculation was rife that Royal Wahingdoh and former I-League champions Salgaocar were contemplating pulling out of the league. However, after Wahingdoh managed to clear the club licensing regulations, it seemed like the club would continue to play in the top-flight for the time-being.
Saturday's development has come as a major blow to Indian football and the I-League, whose future has now been thrown into doubt. Pune FC and Bharat FC had withdrawn from the league earlier this year, and Wahingdoh's departure has now reduced I-League to a 9-team event.
Following the club's announcement of the pullout, Royal Wahingdoh Managing Director and club owner Dominic Sutnga spoke to Catch, explaining the factors behind the decision, and the club's plans for the future.
'Decision practical in the present scenario in Indian football'
Three months back, Pune FC and Bharat FC decided to withdraw from the I-League. Pune FC, in particular, had long been disenchanted with the lack of a proper roadmap for the I-League, AIFF's inability to bring in structural changes to the league, and make it profitable for the clubs. The club's patience finally ran out this summer.
Wahingdoh's reasons behind pulling out are similar. "On our part, it was a difficult decision to make. However, at present, there is no clarity on the future of the I-League. Given the circumstances in the domestic game today, we feel our decision to withdraw from the league is quite practical," stated Dominic Sutnga.
He added that the club would continue to focus on youth development and women's football, among other areas, despite withdrawing from the I-League.
"We will continue functioning normally. Barring the I-League, we will continue to participate in the Shillong Premier League, U15 I-League, U18 I-League, among others. We will continue to promote women's football, and produce quality footballers," he explained.
'Statements from various AIFF officials haven't been encouraging'
In recent months, AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das and many of his colleagues have made comments on the future of the I-League and the Indian Super League.
While most of the administrators seem to vouch for a one-league system, their statements on how such a system would be brought into place have lacked clarity.
With I-League clubs already worried over the future of the league, such ambiguous statements from senior AIFF officials have done little to ease the tension. This, according to Sutnga, played a key part in Wahingdoh's drastic decision to stop being a part of the I-League.
"Statements from various AIFF officials in the recent past, with regards to the I-League, have not been very encouraging; and as such, we don't see the practicality of being a part of a league that has no future," he lamented.
On the players at the club
"All our players and staff have been apprised and explained of our stand, and the club will support them in every way for their future endeavors," the club had stated in a press release on Saturday evening.
Now that Wahingdoh are no longer participating in the I-League, and the club boasting of some of the country's finest footballers, Sutnga assured that Wahingdoh would do whatever they can to not deprive them of top-flight football.
"We will sit down with our players and work towards a solution keeping in mind their best interests," he said.
The likes of Jackichand Singh and Seityasen Singh, among others, had been among the best performers in the I-League last season, and the club will most likely have to part ways with them before the start of the new Indian football season.
On the I-League and the future of Indian football
"There has been a steady improvement in the quality of football in I-League in recent years. However, it is evident that as far as marketing, viewership, and logistical planning is concerned, very little has been done on the lines of the ISL," Sutnga said.
On being asked whether the I-League would have enjoyed better fortune had AIFF accepted the clubs' demand for the league to be made a separate entity, he replied in the affirmative. "Things could definitely have been managed much better in Indian football," added Sutnga.
The Wahingdoh MD concluded by confessing that he does not see India making any significant progress in the sport in the near future.
"Among the more developed footballing nations, there is greater focus on the grassroots. Serious development can be made if you put more focus on football at the base of the pyramid. At the moment, we are following a top-to-bottom approach, the complete reverse of it, and you can not build yourself as a footballing nation in that manner," he opined.