Much has been bandied about on the joint FIFA-AFC report on the roadmap for Indian football recently. With six 'rebel' I-League clubs demanding the implementation of the same and approaching the two aforementioned governing bodies for intervention, the report has constantly been in the news.
Meanwhile FIFA, taking cognizance of the clubs' letter, wrote to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) last month and sought an update on its plans to implement the report and integrate the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League.
The I-League clubs (namely Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Minerva Punjab, Gokulam Kerala, Aizawl FC, Churchill Brothers) felt this communication from FIFA amounted to a moral victory for their cause. However, what they overlooked was the fact that the report was never a binding 'order' on the AIFF.
It was merely a suggestion and a guideline based on which the AIFF may/may not formulate a plan to have a unified top league. And that fact has now been confirmed by FIFA's latest letter which was addressed to Minerva Punjab co-owner Ranjit Bajaj, one of the chief figures in the alliance formed by the six I-League clubs.In the letter, FIFA Acting Deputy Secretary General Mattias Grafstrom stated that the recommendations given by the two-member panel of Alex Phillips and Nic Coward last year are not necessarily binding and that the Indian FA are in the best position to review and decide on how to best implement it.
The report recommends that the ISL should ideally be the top league of the country while I-League should be the second division. But it states that there should be a process to integrate I-League clubs gradually into ISL, starting from the 2019-20 season.
It is important to recognise that AIFF President Praful Patel, in a meeting with I-League clubs last month, had reiterated that I-League would not be relegated to second division and both leagues will continue functioning as India's top leagues for another two-three years.
But the clubs took issue with the fact that the AFC Champions League qualifier spot would be given to ISL winners and the I-League winners would have to settle for the AFC Cup playoff spot.
Patel had also promised that a system to work in promotion and relegation into the ISL would also be gradually introduced, something which was not immediately possible due to contractual obligations with its commercial partners.
The report, which was formulated on the basis of just discussions with various stakeholders, mentions that two teams should be added to the ISL every season from the 2019-20 season until it becomes a 16-team league. At least one of those two new teams every season should be on a sporting merit from the I-League, ideally the champions.
But the report does not completely cover or take into consideration the monetary and contractual obligations between clubs and the ISL. It even says that the new teams should pay only a lesser fee to what the original ISL club pay as a participating fee, something which would not have sat well with the rest of the teams.
The report also weakly states that failure to comply should be met with a continental ban for Indian clubs and nowhere does it mention that the suggestions are to be adopted compulsorily.
And FIFA has now made it clear that it was not so.
Moreover, the six rebel clubs' initial demand was that I-League remains the top league of the country before they resorted to invoking the 2018 report and sought a gateway for entry into the ISL.
However, the global governing body has left the decision entirely with the AIFF and empowered the short-term plan that Praful Patel had formulated earlier.