The Super Cup, currently underway in Bhubaneswar, has emerged as the latest point of friction between the All India Football Federation and I-League clubs. Seven out of the 12 matches played so far, including the qualifiers, have ended in walkovers after half of the teams decided not to show up for the competition. The AIFF has called their actions ‘anti-football.’ The teams have thrown that accusation right back at them.
This form of protest is unprecedented and first-of-a-kind in Indian football. Eight out of the 11 I-League clubs decided to boycott the tournament. I-League champions Chennai City, season’s surprise Real Kashmir and Arrows are the only ones playing in the Super Cup. Chennai City co-owner Rohit Rangarajan said they had to take part in order to keep their hopes of playing in Asia in tact. By virtue of winning the I-League, Chennai will make their continental debut this year but for that, they will need the AIFF’s clearance. Rangarajan said this was an important factor that led to them breaking away from the I-League pack.
But the fact that the country’s two oldest clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, have stood their ground and joined the other teams has put further pressure on the AIFF, who have invited the aggrieved clubs for talks in mid-April. “What they are doing is not good for football. I understand there are some grievances, some differences. But those could have been sorted out rather than boycotting a national tournament,” AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said.
The standoff between the I-League clubs and the AIFF has been brewing for quite some time, accentuated with the proposed promotion of the Indian Super League (ISL) as the country’s main domestic competition. Consequently, the I-League – the premier league since 2008 – will become the de facto second division. The ISL will continue as a no-promotion-no-relegation competition until the next five years at least, till the time the existing contract between the franchises and Football Sports Development Limited – the governing body comprising Reliance and AIFF officials – ends. This means that during this period, no other club in the country will be allowed to join this exclusive group.
Opposing this idea, the I-League clubs proposed to have a 20-team unified league (10 teams each from ISL and I-League), with promotion and relegation.
The officials from AIFF and Reliance, who have so far stonewalled every idea to make ISL an inclusive league, cite two reasons to back their theories: their hands, they say, are tied because of the contractual obligations. But even if a consensus was reached and I-League clubs were allowed to play in the ISL, officials argue, will they be able to match the finances of an ISL franchise? And will the cash-strapped I-League clubs be able to provide ‘world-class’ dressing rooms, lush playing fields and other such facilities? “If you have to convince a Tim Cahill to play in India, can you have sub-standard facilities?” says an official.
Aizawl, for example, has never been seriously considered to host NorthEast United’s matches because of the treacherous travel conditions (the closest airport, Lengpui, is 30km away) and lack of plush hotels, which the ISL players are used to living in.
To be fair, the need to have quality playing fields and facilities for players cannot be understated. It is, in fact, one of the biggest changes ISL has brought in Indian football. But they miss a point when half of the teams are kicked out just on the assumption that they will not be able to ‘match the ISL standards’.
One of football’s enduring charms is the challenge to play away from home. It is common for clubs in some of the world’s top leagues to adopt a few underhand tactics in order to gain ‘home’ advantage. According to multiple reports in the British media, the floor of the away dressing room at Anfield is so painstakingly polished that players of visiting teams have to tip-toe on their boots to avoid slipping. In the 2015 Champions League, Manchester United players complained that the temperature in Wolfsburg’s Volkswagen Arena was ‘too hot’.
Not just football, England and Australian cricket teams that travelled to the subcontinent in the 1980s and 90s have some delicious anecdotes about adapting to the conditions here – from the hotels to dressing rooms to the dry outfields. It’s a part of the challenge, something that makes winning away from home so special to the players and teams – a Cahill would perhaps prefer playing an away game in tough conditions, but packed stadium, in Aizawl instead of the empty stands in Guwahati, a baffling choice as NorthEast’s home.
A FSDL official conceded these are ‘business decisions, not just based on football decision.’ Reliance, as a private entity funding a league, is expected to further its case. The onus, however, is on the federation. It was almost certain that ISL would take over as the premier tournament this year onwards. For the time being, the protests have forced the AIFF to play down those talks. “We will hear out the clubs’ grievances. Eventually, our executive committee will take a decision,” Das said.