Opinion: Uncertainty in Indian Football before ISL Final and Super Cup due to AIFF's high-handedness
Indian football is in a mess. There's no sugar-coating the message like how the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the governing body for the sport, usually does. Indian football is in a mess.
A disappointing show in the Asian Cup after pulling off one of their greatest wins over Thailand. Seven Manipuri women footballers accusing the Indian women's football team assistant coach of favouritism. That's with India's performance internationally. This is not about that.
Days before the grand Indian Super League (ISL) final, the domestic system has plunged into a new level of uncertainty. Eight teams from the nation's premier division I-League have threatened to withdraw from the AIFF-organised Hero Super Cup, the knockout tournament pitting the ISL and I-League teams together.
Their grouse is that the AIFF has not addressed their concerns regarding the roadmap for Indian Football. They've all sought a meeting with AIFF chief Praful Patel but the politician-cum-sports administrator has not gotten back to them.
Three of those eight teams - Minerva Punjab, Aizawl FC and Gokulam Kerala - will be immediately seen in violation of AIFF rules for withdrawing from the qualifiers, which are scheduled for March 15 and 16. Only thing is, they won't be. Confused?
By the time you read this, Minerva Punjab's qualifier against FC Pune City would have probably been abandoned despite the Punjab team camping in Bhubaneswar, the venue of the Super Cup. Likewise, Gokulam Kerala did not attend the pre-match press conference before their Super Cup Qualifier against Delhi Dynamos.
Minerva Punjab owner Ranjit Bajaj says the team has withdrawn its name from the tournament before it started and therefore, will not be held guilty of violating the Super Cup rules.
"If we just get a reply from Praful Patel, we'll consider playing but the AIFF is only bothered about the ISL," Bajaj says.
That's the problem, isn't it?
What's Super about Super Cup?
Getting to see the often ignored I-League clubs battle for supremacy against the ISL sides is the only USP of the Super Cup. It doesn't give the winning team an AFC Cup or AFC Champions League qualifier slot. You will apparently earn some bragging rights but how much has Bengaluru FC, the winners of the inaugural edition, really bragged about it?
It's not just the I-League clubs who are questioning AIFF about its future plans for Indian football. Even the media has been after the AIFF over it and all it has got is subtle hints about the 'grand' plans.
The supposed merger of the ISL and I-League will only turn out to be a demotion for the I-League as the second division, which means that the current champions of India, Chennai City FC, will play the next season in the second division.
Enraged? That's the I-League clubs.
Couldn't care less? That's the AIFF.
And they just won't answer anyone. Forget snubbing the questions from the media, they haven't even responded to a letter sent by eight I-League clubs back in February about what the domestic structure will be next season. This is the primary reason why the clubs have threatened to withdraw.
"Even in a state federation like Kerala, the secretary of the Kerala Football Association calls for a meeting before the Kerala Premier League with all the club owners and discusses the rules and regulations of the tournament," Praveen VC, CEO of Gokulam Kerala, told Sportskeeda.
"This is the AIFF and they didn't even call a meeting before the I-League commenced. We just received the fixtures and were asked to participate."
AIFF needs to address I-League clubs' concerns
How difficult is it really to hear out 8 teams and reassure them of their standing and contribution to Indian football? But the AIFF president Praful Patel has not even proposed a date to meet them.
That's all Punjab owner Bajaj really wants - a place and meeting time. Even as his team warms up for the match, Pune City, their opponents in the Super Cup qualifier, are enjoying a match-day experience.
What match? Is it happening?
No. And that AIFF could offer over the matter is this:
"In case of Minerva Punjab FC not taking the field tomorrow (March 15, 2019) in the opening match of the Qualifiers of the Hero Super Cup against FC Pune City slated to kick-off at 5pm at the Kalinga Stadium, the rules and regulations of the tournament will be invoked, and the matter forwarded to the relevant authority for further action and decision."
Thank you, Mr Obvious.
In the same statement, the AIFF calls Minerva Punjab's no-show as a blatant disregard of the federation but the AIFF's actions over the last few months/years have only been about turning a blind eye towards the management of Indian football and its clubs.
Sure, you could argue that the withdrawal from the tournament is technically blackmail. The method of their dissent is wrong and the clubs need to know better. AIFF, the governing body, needs to know better than ignore their calls for a long time now.
"We're only asking them for a date and meeting place," Praveen added. "It can be now. It can be in March or even April. But we want our concerns to be heard.
"We would definitely like to play the Super Cup because it gives us a chance to play against ISL clubs, who are said to be better than the I-League clubs. But we took the collective decision in the interest of Indian football."
Tell them and the country what your roadmap is. If you need more time, take it. But at least come out with some strategy to bring the clubs under your control instead of keeping quiet.
Indian football stands divided. While the I-League clubs are struggling for identity, the ISL clubs seem to be enjoying premier division status, much to the ire of the I-League clubs.
The AIFF is supposed to bring them together but it has only created a monster it doesn't know how to control.