I-League: Relegation system at risk of being rendered pointless with ad-hoc decisions

Churchill Brothers' plea being taken up for consideration is the latest indictment of the league's relegation system losing its meaning...

On Tuesday, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) League Committee met in Delhi to decide Churchill Brothers’ fate in the top division of the I-League.

The Goan club finished ninth in the 10-team I-League in the 2017-18 season and were relegated to the second tier due to AIFF’s developmental side Indian Arrows, who finished bottom, enjoying an immunity from relegation.

The Goan outfit shot a letter to the governing body requesting an exemption from their impending relegation. The argument put forward by the team management was that Churchill’s relegation would leave the state of Goa completely unrepresented in the top-tier of the I-League which in turn would be detrimental to the growth of football in the region.

In fact, those were not the only grounds that the Goan club had based their request for exemption on. The other factor was an assertion from the club that crucial refereeing decisions had gone against them in their I-League campaign.

"After the Indian Arrows match, I am very unhappy with the refereeing standards of the league. They have denied us legal goals and have not awarded us clear penalties which were in our favour. Then from Goa, there is only one I-League team. To benefit Goan football there must be at least one representative in the top division," the club’s owner Churchill Alemao had tried to reason after the team suffered relegation in March this year.

The League Committee has forwarded the matter to the Emergency Committee which will take it up on a later date. All signs currently point toward the Goan club’s request being upheld which in turn poses a difficult question for the future of the I-League.

A request for exemption is nothing new in the I-League’s history. This year itself, Chennai City FC had written to the AIFF requesting for immunity after the club was in danger of suffering relegation. The AIFF had deferred the matter until the culmination of the season though, in the end, Churchill’s ninth-place finish eliminated the need for any decision.

The most relevant case of an I-League first division club being reinstated into the top-tier despite being relegated that springs to mind is Aizawl FC’s 2015-16 campaign.

The Mizoram-based outfit were consigned to the second tier of the I-League but found themselves back in the top division in the subsequent season after a request for exemption.

The 2016-17 season had seen three Goan clubs in the form of Salgaocar, Dempo and Sporting Club de Goa pull out of the I-League and that factor could very well have played an important part in the AIFF’s decision to reinstate Aizawl.

However, the official reasoning given by the AIFF president Praful Patel was the same one used by Churchill Brothers in their plea.

“Aizawl will be a part of the I-League. We are looking to promote teams from different regions in the I-League and that policy will always be maintained by the AIFF,” the AIFF president had then stated.

“Aizawl FC is not a replacement for Salgaocar FC. I have been contacted by many parties to set-up teams in the I-League and we will also begin advertising to let people know that we are welcoming teams to the I-League.”

By accepting Aizawl’s plea, the AIFF had set a dangerous precedent where the ‘promotion of football’ in a specific region was used as the basis for making the decision. That same reasoning is now being used by clubs like Churchill and Chennai City and there is nothing to suggest that other clubs will not jump on the same argument when facing relegation at any point in the future.

If the same argument had been used after the completion of the 2016-17 season, perhaps the now disbanded Mumbai FC might have still been around in the I-League’s top tier. The Mumbai club was relegated at the end of the season and subsequently ran into further financial doom. With DSK Shivajians discontinuing their first team, there was no team from Maharashtra in the 2017-18 season of the I-League’s top-tier.

By applying special dispensation on a case-by-case basis, the AIFF is eroding the basic meritocracy of the promotion/relegation system currently in effect. When the merit-based approach becomes weakened, the very basis of having different tiers in the league becomes pointless. 

A relegation and promotion system is the foundation of a strong league structure and by circumventing the rules as and when desired, the league is only shooting itself in the foot and opening up a dangerous can of worms which can only cause trouble in the future.

If regional representation is the sole basis in deciding such cases, the promotion and relegation system should, in fact, be ultimately scrapped altogether as it defeats that very purpose. Currently, the I-League is singing out of two hymn sheets concurrently. Having their foot in both doors will only add to more confusion and the AIFF must choose and persist with one if the league is to be taken seriously.