A majority of I-League clubs have been involved in a very public spat with the All India Football Federation of late. They went as far as boycotting the Super Cup, but has all of this actually damaged their case and made it easier for the governing body to ditch them in favour of the ISL?

Indian football has been under a cloud in 2018-19. That may not be particularly surprising to readers given that it hasn’t run smoothly for years now.

But after years of simmering tension between the I-League clubs and the AIFF, the situation has been brought to a boil.

The creation of the Indian Super League, which has now completed five years, was the germ of the mess that we see ourselves in right now.

I-League clubs must’ve looked at the ISL and thought “Wow!” – all that money, the slick television packaging, the sponsors!

Since the ISL was introduced the I-League has been the less-favoured, sickly child in the eyes of parent AIFF, who haven’t paid it much attention after spawning a better looking younger child.

After being a rather polite tiff between the two sides, it started to really kick off this past season after broadcaster Star Sports decided halfway through the season that they would not broadcast many of the I-League’s remaining fixtures, angering the clubs.

It went from there to further hints from members of the AIFF about the future direction of the football in the country. Despite being shunted into the darkness, the I-League officially remained the top tier in the country and then joint top tier with the ISL. From next season the younger sibling is all set to get all of the limelight and this has not gone down well with the I-League sides, who are by and large clubs that have built themselves up over the years, rather than being artificial ones parachuted in like those in the ISL.

The I-League clubs came up with a proposal for a 20-team united I-League-ISL, which the AIFF said it would look into, but which has very little hope of being adopted.

Pushed into a corner, they went as far as demanding a meeting with AIFF president Praful Patel or else they would boycott the Super Cup. Real Kashmir did participate, along with AIFF development team Indian Arrows, though Chennai City, who were originally among those who threatened to boycott, eventually caved and took part.

In reaction to the pullout threat Patel agreed to a meeting later this month and the governing body sounded conciliatory towards the clubs.

That all changed the other day when Patel, who had just become the first Indian to be elected to the FIFA Council, minced no words when he said, “they (the clubs) acted in a manner that is unbecoming of sportsmanship. What is the point of having this meeting now since they have pulled out of the Super Cup?”

Minerva Punjab, one of the boycotting clubs, then found their maiden AFC Cup campaign thrown into doubt when the owners of the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar told them that the venue would not be available to them. Ostensibly this was to enable renovation work to take place, but the timing suggested to many that the AIFF put pressure on the owners to cancel Minerva’s booking, though AIFF sources denied this.

Minerva owner Ranjit Bajaj later announced that his club would shut down. Bajaj is a fierce critic of the way the AIFF has been handling club football in the country over the years and is a controversial figure in his own right.

The Indian football authorities appear to be thoroughly fed up with the I-League whingers. And the boycott of the Super Cup, a tournament that was already lacking relevance even before the walkout, might just give the AIFF the ammunition to sweep the clubs aside and officially make the ISL, whose teams appear as meek lambs compared to those of the I-League, the one top league in the country.

Patel’s statement makes the point that the I-League clubs were in the wrong to boycott the Super Cup. If these clubs don’t take back control of the narrative soon and argue their case that they’ve been hard done by it’ll be “so long and thanks, I-League. RIP.”

(All India Football Federation photo)

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