Explained: The Stand-Off Between AIFF & I-League Clubs Over ISL

The I-league clubs and All India Football Federation (AIFF), the governing body of Indian football, are at loggerheads since reports emerged that the AIFF is planning to make the Indian Super League (ISL) the country’s top league as per an agreement signed years before the ISL’s inaugural edition.

The I-league came into existence in 2007 as a successor to the National Football League, which was there in place in 1996. Prior to this India never had a league structure for football.

Meanwhile, the ISL was founded in 2013 in partnership with IMG, Reliance Industries, and Star Sports with first season being played in 2014. The competition is a franchisee-based league, on the lines of Major League Soccer in United States, without the concept of promotion and relegation. I-league, on the other hand, operates on a system of promotion and relegation with the I-League 2nd Division in place.

When Did the Problem Start?

In 2014, when the first season of ISL was yet to begin, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) decided against recognising it as a league. It deemed ISL to be a tournament instead. The official league for football in India remained the I-League. With no recognition from the AFC, the competition also couldn't participate in Asian club competitions, the AFC Champions League or AFC Cup.

But things changed in 2016. The promoters of ISL wanted the competition to become the top tier football league in India while the I-League be reformed as ‘League One’ and be relegated as the second division competition.

What led to this development?

AIFF had signed a Master Rights of Agreement (MRA) with its commercial partners Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), a subsidiary of IMG-Reliance, in 2010 which had stated that a new league (ISL) could be made the top division of Indian football and that the I-League could be reconstituted, replaced and/or discontinued (temporarily or permanently).

ISL vs I-League

Clearly, the I-league clubs weren’t happy with this proposal. Meanwhile, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan wanted both the leagues to be merged.

In 2017, the AIFF proposed that both the ISL and I-League can run simultaneously on a short-term basis with the I-League winner qualifying for the AFC Champions League and the AFC Cup qualification spot going to the ISL champion. The proposal from the AIFF was officially approved by the AFC on 25 July 2017.

With ISL’s recognition, Federation Cup, which was India’s premier football knock-out competition lost its stature.

In the same year, it was announced that ISL would be expanding its season by two months, thus making the league last for five months instead of three months. And Bengaluru FC, one of the top teams of I-League, decided to change sides and join the ISL.

Since then there has been an existential crisis for I-league.

Things really went downhill last year after Star Sports, the official broadcaster of I-League, decided against broadcasting all matches of the second half of I-League’s previous season.

Remember, Star Sports, apart from being the official broadcaster of ISL, was the one of the promoters of the league along with Reliance Industries and IMG, who pulled out from FSDL last year.

Why is AIFF Going With ISL?

FIFA doesn’t allow any of its affiliates to have run two leagues simultaneously. The world body has in the past warned AIFF to get its house in order and have a single league to avoid a ban.

So, when given the option is between the two, AIFF had reasons to go with ISL.

Firstly, a merger was not an option since FDSL was against it and since they were given the right and ability to establish the ISL and to decide upon the format, rules and structure of the ISL and the team and players which will compete in it, AIFF had no say it.

In the same contract, as mentioned earlier, AIFF had stated that the new league, which is ISL, could be made the top division of Indian football in future and that the I-League could be reconstituted, replaced and/or discontinued (temporarily or permanently).

Speaking to TOI, AIFF general secretary Kushal Das also mentioned that they have no way out but make ISL the top league.

"“It’s in the contract (that ISL will be the top league). Initially, we felt that let the tournament happen and then we will see. After five years, we have to honour the contract. Let the executive committee decide.”" - Kushal Das, General Secretary, AIFF

AIFF vs I-League Clubs

FDSL, the promoter of I-League, was brought into the picture way back in 2010. During that time, it wasn’t called FDSL and comprised only Reliance Industries and IMG.

In 2010, AIFF signed a 15-year deal worth Rs 700 crore with Reliance Industries and IMG. This deal came about after the AIFF ended their 10-year deal with Zee Sports, with five years still left in the deal.

When Reliance Industries and IMG came on board their primary job was to promote and market the I-League. They had exclusive commercial rights to sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, video, and franchising. Apart from these, their contract also gave them the rights to create a new football league.

But within less than a year, I-League clubs accused IMG-Reliance of doing nothing to promote the I-League and demanded that I-League should be a separate entity.

Since then I-League clubs and IMG-Reliance have been at loggerheads.

Meanwhile, since Minerva FC won the I-league in 2018, its owner Ranjit Bajaj has openly criticised AIFF for allowing FDSL to call the shots in Indian football. This week Bajaj even uploaded on Twitter pages of AIFF’s ‘Master Rights Agreement’ with IMG-Reliance back in 2010.

Earlier in February this year, the I-League clubs had written to AIFF president Praful Patel to set up a meeting with him to discuss their future and their problem with FSDL’s involvement.

But, according to the I-League clubs they never received any response from the AIFF. Thus, they decided not to participate in the Super Cup. Later, they were informed by Das that the meeting would take place between 10-14 April but that never happened.

After receiving Das’ response, the I-League clubs had asked for a restart of the Super Cup so that Minerva Punjab FC, Aizawl FC and Gokulam Kerala FC can join the competition. But AIFF refused to relent and instead imposed heavy fines on seven I-League clubs that boycotted the Super Cup.

What are I-League Clubs Saying?

Representatives of seven I-League clubs – Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Churchill Brothers, Minerva Punjab FC, Aizawl FC, NEROCA and Gokulam Kerala FC – held a meeting in New Delhi on Monday, where they decided to move courts if AIFF declared the ISL to be country's top league.

"“With media reports indicating that the ISL being announced as the top division league post an Executive committee meeting scheduled for July 3rd, the I-League clubs are standing united stronger than ever.”" - I-League Clubs in a Joint Statement

The clubs continued to accuse FDSL of blackmailing AIFF.

"The refusal of the President of AIFF to meet the I-League clubs in spite of several requests and the subsequent vindictive actions specifically towards the I-League clubs, combined with the coercive and blackmailing attitude of FSDL towards AIFF by refusing to make payments pushes the game to an uncertain future," said the clubs.

The clubs further stated: "I League has been the national league since 1996 and carries the tradition of Indian Football with it. This tradition has helped create what football in India stands today and has been the torch bearer of Indian football. I League has been the sole driving force in creating footballers and fans of the game in the country.”

"“To be now told that the I-League will no longer be the top league is completely unacceptable and illegal and we pledge to fight this together as one football family which carries the tradition of Indian football.”" - I-League Clubs in a Joint Statement

What is AIFF’s Response?

AIFF was prompt in responding to the I-League clubs. In their response, AIFF asked the clubs to have a discussion with them instead of pre-empting the future.

"“The AIFF feels that it is very premature and unnecessary to pre-judge any action of the AIFF and be commenting on the AIFF Executive Committee meeting on July 3, 2019 in advance.”" - AIFF Statement

"The AIFF as a custodian of Indian football has always endeavoured to balance the interest of all stakeholders, and the Hero I-League, and its clubs. To say that the future of Hero I-League, and the clubs will not be taken into consideration for any future decisions of the AIFF would be unfair," the federation said in its statement.

The statement also said that AIFF has already spoken to its commercial partners FSDL about the concerns of the Hero I-League clubs.

The federation also expressed surprise at the I-League clubs' claim that the AIFF president Praful Patel had gone back on his promise to meet the clubs after the Super Cup withdrawal earlier this year.

Reacting to Minerva FC owner Ranjit Bajaj’s tweet, the federation also warned the clubs to refrain from making “unnecessary accusations”.

"Needless to say, some club owners have taken to a vicious and malicious social media campaign against the AIFF and its president. We would like to caution the clubs to refrain from unnecessary accusations and advise them to engage meaningfully for the betterment of Indian football," the apex body concluded its statement.

What Next?

The AIFF Executive Committee which was going to meet in New Delhi on 3 July to take a call on this matter decided to postpone the meet to 9 July last week.

This was confirmed by AIFF Vice President Subrata Dutta, though he did not elaborate the reason behind the postponement. “Yes, the meeting has been postponed to July 9,” Dutta had told IANS.

The I-League clubs feel Das' acknowledgement of ISL being given the top honour will be rubber-stamped in the meeting.

The AIFF said they have invited a top AFC official to India for discussing concerns regarding the I-League. According to their statement, during the last AFC AGM in Paris, the AIFF asked the AFC General Secretary Dato Windsor John to visit India specifically for Hero I-League issues.

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