Are the six protesting I-League clubs, namely Aizawl FC, Churchill Brothers, East Bengal, Gokulam Kerala, Minerva Punjab FC and Mohun Bagan, jeopardising the future of Indian football with their ever-changing views and demands?
All 10 I-League clubs, including defending champions Chennai City FC, TRAU, NEROCA FC and Real Kashmir, had met with AIFF President Praful Patel on Thursday and the ongoing tussle between I-League and Indian Super League (ISL) was discussed in detail. The meeting came after repeated demands of the clubs to meet with the AIFF supremo for quite a while now.
Mr. Patel then suggested and proposed a roadmap to the clubs for the next two-to-three years wherein the ISL champions would get the AFC Champions League (ACL) preliminary qualifiers spot (which the AIFF are contractually bound to do) while the I-League champions will be handed the AFC Cup play-off spot.
A joint statement put out by the AIFF had even indicated that the clubs had agreed on the roadmap.
"AIFF and the I-League Clubs have agreed and will work together to find a solution to all issues including the calendar, scheduling, broadcasting, and the continuation of the I-League for a defined period, till the roadmap is ascertained in a time-bound manner in consultation with FSDL(Football Sports Development, AIFF's commercial partners) and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
"A lot of other meaningful issues were also simultaneously discussed, and it is hoped that all issues regarding the future of the Hero I-League vis-à-vis the Hero Indian Super League will be resolved shortly," the statement read.
However, after the meeting, the aforementioned six rebel clubs sent out another statement saying that they demand the ACL spot and wanted status quo on the same, apart from several other claims including the setting up of an I-League committee.
But sources from the AIFF have claimed that the clubs changed their tracks after initially agreeing to what the AIFF had proposed during the meeting with Praful Patel.
"As per the request of the clubs, the AIFF President met the 10 clubs and gave suggestions of possible solutions which can then be discussed with FSDL and Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
"However, after the meeting which was quite positive, six clubs have stated a different opinion which means that no further discussions maybe possible at this point with AFC and FSDL. This, in turn, will delay the roadmap,which the AIFF President was trying to push," official sources from the AIFF told Goal .
Despite meeting with the AIFF President along with other I-League clubs, the six I-League clubs have missed out on a great opportunity to address their concerns because of their confusing and changing stances. And their refusal to find a middle ground is also hurting the cause of the other I-League clubs.
Interestingly, the sources also revealed that the I-League clubs are not united in their new stand. Goal understands that Chennai City FC have already written a letter to the AIFF pledging their support to the proposed roadmap by Mr. Patel. TRAU, NEROCA and Real Kashmir FC have also verbally agreed with the roadmap.
In fact, senior Mohun Bagan official Debashish Dutta had said immediately after the meeting that he was fine with any of the two continental spots being awarded to the I-League. He specifically emphasized that since a slot is being given to the I-League, it means that it cannot be considered a second division league.
"ACL and AFC Cup slots are almost the same. The slots can't be given to a second division league. A (continental) slot is a slot. The leagues will happen in parallel, so who gets which slot is not important. And even with the ACL slot, ultimately you come to play in the AFC Cup which is a tournament where Indian clubs can do better as the competition is of a similar level."
But after the six I-League clubs reconvened to deliberate, the stance of Dutta and the other club officials changed.
"However, the clubs are not in favour of giving away their rightfully earned and longstanding AFC Champions league spot till a proper plan for the unified league is initiated. The United I-League clubs insist that the AFC Champions League spot must remain with the I-League as it is the I-League clubs that have (over the years) earned the AFC spots for India to enjoy today. The AIFF has already granted AFC Cup slot to ISL in 2017 and the same arrangement should continue till there is one unified league," the press release from the I-League clubs read.
With the I-League clubs having lost a great chance to reach a consensus due to their unwillingness to deliberate and find a common ground, the ball is now with the AIFF as everybody waits for the next play.