The southerners face the prospect of playing in what could be the second division next season even after having won the title.
Life can be cruel at times.
Three years, three different winners. The I-League has been enthralling to say the least, with the title chase going down to the wire at all three occasions. The favourites have failed to lay grasp to it, making it even more delicious. The excitement of an unheralded winner usurping everyone else to the throne is what makes leagues watchable.
The I-league, according to popular myth, has gone down – not it terms of football, but in terms of marketing. With no realm of cover from experts FSDL, It still gives ISL teams a good lesson on the pitch (Chennai City FC recently defeated FC Pune City 4-2), and yet, are not spoken in the same breath in terms of capability, and it all boils down to the element it lacks in.
Chennai City FC have been far more convincing winners than Aizawl and Minerva Punjab FC. The latter clubs had 11 victories over the course of the entire season, while Chennai had 13 as it romped to the title this season. On the course, it scored 48 times, exactly double of what both Minerva and Aizawl managed in seasons playing just two games lesser. It shows the kind of devastating form the club was in.
Moreover, it had arguably lost its best Indian player to the charm of the Indian Super League as Michael Soosairaj joined hands with Jamshedpur FC. It didn’t slow down, and ended the season with a deal with Swiss giants FC Basel on its table. Hereon, things can only move ahead, right? Not really. Not in Indian football. Arguably the most dominant winner from the last three editions stands to lose the most.
“We might have won but that doesn’t mean we are going to put our hands up and tell AIFF that you can’t do this to us,” said Rohit Ramesh, owner, Chennai City FC in an interaction with the Times of India. Aizawl FC sat on a dharna, while Minerva Punjab protested (that still continues). “We will play in League 2 if needed. At the end of the day, it will only be a change in name for us.”
In the same interview, Ramesh brushed aside the idea of paying the ‘dreaded’ franchise fees unless the AIFF shows them the roadmap to recover the money back. “We would rather invest that money in our infrastructure and grassroots.” he said.
The idea of playing in the second division may not go down too well with the players that are on the champions’ roster and may switch for the top-tier league. Turning into a feeder club isn’t a problem, says Ramesh. “We are absolutely okay with it. We have produced players like Soosairaj and Nandhakumar who have gone on to play in ISL. The plan is to keep finding new players. This season too, a lot of ISL clubs have already started to enquire about our players. For us, the growth of a player should never stop. If he feels that he will be better off in another club and our coach doesn’t have a problem with his departure, we will release him. That is how we can give a platform to other talented players from Tamil Nadu.” Ramesh concluded.
If that’s the state of mind of the champions of I-league, imagine how the other clubs that have not been on the top of their financial and footballing game for a while now must be feeling. Their insecurities must be staring in their faces. The Chennai City owner also added, “It’s not just about us. All the I-league clubs have invested heavily and they all have a right to know what is going to happen to the tournament.”
I-league CEO Sunando Dhar had recently stated that the new league will not have relegation/promotion, and it looks likely to be a closed league system at the top. It loosely means that a fixed number of teams play the same amount of games during one regular season without promotion/relegation. This system, though, is a breach of Article 9 of FIFA’s Regulations and is certainly not for the long-term. What is AIFF envisaging for the sport in the country? They’re gradually edging closer to losing their official status and two slots at the AFC, and are at a risk of losing the hosting rights of the U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2020.