The inevitable has happened, and Air India as well as ONGC have been officially disqualified from next season’s I-League competition, owing to not fulfilling the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) club licensing criterion.
While the All India Football Federation (AIFF) should be lauded for finally showing some intent regarding the clubs toeing the line of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), there is not much to feel excited about, seeing the demise of two more football clubs.
The Public Sector Unit (PSU) controlled sides do not boast of too many household names, however they have unearthed several top youngsters. Generally left with a shoe-string budget, these clubs generally have to let go of their best talents every year, and while that meant that they never really challenged for any titles, it gave new players a chance to show their potential on the national stage.
And even this season, ONGC under Santosh Kashyap have undergone a fairytale transformation from relegation fodder to a top half of the table side.
As always, several new players tipped for the very top have risen from obscurity through the ranks of these two clubs. In an era when most clubs are paying over the top salaries to players past their best, the two Mumbai based clubs always offered a new dimension.
Infact in the case of Air India, one could bid good-bye to a huge fan following. While during their ‘home’ games in Pune, they get no crowd whatsoever, in their golden years at the Cooperage stadium, they were arguably the most supported Mumbai side, over heavyweights like Mahindra United who had shut shop a few years back.
Part of many battles, the two teams will be missed...
However while they will definitely be missed, the two clubs have no one but themselves to blame for the present situation. While it is indeed a very long and tricky process that is involved in converting a club from a PSU owned entity, to a separate club, other smaller division 2 sides have shown that it can be done. For example Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML) will take part in the proceedings of second division I-League.
The two Mumbai based sides though, seemed to have been lulled into a phase of complacency, where the officials thought, probably looking at the AIFF’s past track-record, that eventually they would be able to get away scot-free.
Infact even a few months ago, an Air India official confided to Goal.com, that they were confident of keeping their place in 2013-14. This lax attitude meant that none of these clubs really took on the task of evolving as a separate entity seriously, and have paid the price for it now.
As mentioned above, the AIFF must be lauded for finally showing some backbone and intent.
The national football authority though, could be questioned on why only one criteria of being a separate entity has been used to omit two teams from the competition, when several other clubs have not fulfilled other requirements to be eligible to take part in a competition like the Asian Champions League.
For starters the league itself is not yet a separate entity, which is a major requirement to take part in the elite continental tournament. With the tricky tangle that the AIFF finds itself in having sold all its commercial and marketing rights to IMG-Reliance back in 2010, no decision has been reached on having an independent I-League body, in which the clubs would have a sizable say.
Not that all the clubs have gone by the book. While Air India and ONGC have paid for their indiscretions, several other clubs, who might have fulfilled the criteria of being a separate entity, are yet to come close to meeting other requirements.
For example, how many clubs have a fully functioning website and a media officer who sends regular updates about the club?
The clubs haven't done much for youth development...
Infact do all the other 12 I-League clubs have a youth development program from U-15 onwards? As Rob Baan recently pointed out, the clubs have shown next to no interest in youth development, which is a critical aspect of getting a full time AFC Club license. It is well known how some clubs, even for the U-19 level, pick up players at random, to show they have a programme, which is of no long-term help to Indian football.
The less said about the infrastructure, the better! Air India atleast have a good training facility in Mumbai, something many of the clubs can’t boast of. Even a club with Prayag United’s spending power, has poor training facilities, as exposed by their own coach Eelco Schattorie recently.
While another aspect to be looked at, with regards to competing in AFC competitions is the need to have no outstanding dues to players, officials or anyone else connected to the game, with everyone connected to the club having professional contracts, of which all of them should have a copy.
Forget past history, even this season itself, Goal.com has raised instances where players of clubs of the stature of Salgaocar FC, Churchill Brothers and Mumbai FC have suffered, due to clubs not fulfilling their side of the bargain.
So in the end, if the two PSU owned clubs feel a bit disenchanted, they might have a reason for feeling so.
The AIFF now, needs to tackle all of these other issues that are holding back Indian football, with similar resolve, as they look to take football forward in the country.
And maybe it will be too soon to write an obituary for Air India and ONGC. A year spent in the wilderness might be the jolt the officials of the two sides needed, and may spark an effort to finally align themselves with the licensing norms.
If they do manage to do so, one would hope to see them back in the I-League, through the division 2 route, in a couple of years and the Mumbai based clubs, along with HAL Bangalore, may yet fly the flag of the underdogs in Indian football again.
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