India’s club football system was thrown into turmoil on Friday after former champions Salgaocar and fellow Goan side Sporting Clube de Goa withdrew from the next edition of the I-League, citing the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and IMG-Reliance’s proposed structure for the new domestic season next year onward as the reason. Another former champion, Dempo, too have hinted they will withdraw from I-League.
In a joint statement, Salgaocar and Sporting Clube called AIFF’s decision to have no promotion and relegation in the new format ‘shocking and disheartening’. They further added there has been no response from the AIFF to the suggestions sent by them ‘over a month ago’. Last month, AIFF and IMGR announced a three-tier system for Indian football, which would make the Indian Super League (ISL) the premier league while the current I-League would be the second division, rechristened as League One.
The fact that they cannot be a part of the top division simply because they can’t handle the financial aspect of being in the ISL is what irks Salgaocar and Sporting Clube. In their statement, the clubs said there was no incentive for them to be a part of the ‘pay to play’ franchise model, which is skewed heavily in favour of ISL teams.
The new league was to be launched in November 2017 after the under-17 World Cup in September and October while the final season of the I-League was to start in January 2017 and run till May. However, with the Goan clubs deciding to pull out, a huge question mark remains over whether the league will take place at all.
Last season, the I-League had just nine teams — the lowest since its inception nine years ago — and the AIFF had to run the calendar through the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) since it did not meet its minimum match criteria. With Salgaocar and Sporting Clube withdrawing — and Dempo’s imminent announcement — the I-League will just have six teams next season.
East Bengal secretary Kalyan Majumdar trained his gun at AIFF president Praful Patel, saying the president and his entourage should play now. “It’s another nail in the coffin. What’s left to play in the I-League now? The president and his entourage should play,” Majumdar said.
By pulling out of the I-League, Salgaocar and Sporting Clube have joined a growing list of clubs who have withdrawn from the competition in the last few years. After Mahindra United and JCT Phagwara shut shop in 2010 and 2011 respectively, other major teams like Pune FC, Royal Wahingdoh and Bharat FC too have pulled out recently, severely weakening the I-League’s foundations.
Dempo owner Srinivas Dempo said he ‘understood the logic of the two Goan clubs’. Dempo speaks from an intriguing stand point. Not only does he own the I-League club, but he is also the co-owner of ISL side FC Goa and is the vice-president of the AIFF. Yet, he was critical of the road map presented for Indian football, calling it ‘unclear.’ “We have to take a decision but it is very unclear what the I-League clubs will do by playing for just one year. The road map is not very clear and still at a discussion stage,” he told The Indian Express. “An I-League club has to make large amount of investment to sustain its operations. And if it’s done for only one year, then it doesn’t make prudent business sense.”
Salgaocar, who are celebrating their 60th anniversary this year, have been mulling I-League exit for quite some time now. Their owner Shivanand Salgaocar had hinted in the past they would stop playing in the domestic league if the AIFF did not take the I-League seriously. They are among the oldest Goan clubs and until Dempo took the domestic circuit by storm, Salgaocar was the name synonymous with Goan football.
Sporting Clube, meanwhile, have always been too good for the second division but not good enough for the first. Their owner Peter Vaz, meanwhile, was highly critical of the new format when it was presented. However, both Goan clubs have themselves to blame as well. Despite their rich history, they could barely create a fan base and their matches would be attended by barely a hundred people. Consequently, they could not attract sponsors and the clubs ran primarily because of the deep pockets of their respective owners.
While expressing ‘surprise and regret’, the AIFF was quick to point towards these flaws while conveniently ignoring its own failure in marketing the I-League and projecting it as the country’s top league. “There is no denying the contribution made by the clubs who have been associated with Indian football for a long time, it was also evident that they were unable to create fan base to sustain themselves,” AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said in a release.