Under pressure from its commercial partners' Reliance, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) on Tuesday decided to give Indian Super League teams a shot at the AFC Champions League championship. It effectively means I-League teams, a big chunk of which is up in arms against the AIFF, will not be able to contest Asia's biggest club championship and will have to settle for the relatively less prestigious AFC Cup.
The AIFF is doing everything to please the Football Sports Development Limited, an arm of Reliance. FSDL virtually runs the AIFF that on paper claims to be the 'custodian' of the game in India. The AFC Champions League is equivalent to the UEFA Champions League. I-League clubs vied to play in this championship. If the AIFF now has its way, that privilege will go to teams that play the ISL, a tournament massively promoted by FSDL.
Two years ago, AIFF managed to win ISL some recognition from the Asian Football Confederation. As a trade-off with I-League teams, the AIFF then let ISL teams qualify for the AFC Cup. Till last year, I-League teams competed to play the Champions League.
A much-hassled AIFF now wants the AFC to mediate and convince the warring I-League teams to accept the formula till the elusive united league of India is formed.
The AIFF, citing a controversial contract with Reliance, is trying to elevate the ISL as India's premier football league championship. Fearing their future, I-League giants like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan and more recent teams like Minerva Punjab, Gokulam Kerala and Aizawl FC have written to the Prime Minister to intervene.
In a media release, the AIFF said: "In light of the MRA as well as the fact that in the last 5 years the entire Indian National squad are mostly being signed/playing for the Hero Indian Super League clubs, and the TV viewership and in stadia audience having grown far more substantially vis a vis the Hero I-League, and the Hero Indian Super League clubs complying with the entire AFC Club licensing criteria, including strong Grassroots, and Youth Development Programmes which had also been certified by the Asian Football Confederation, the AIFF Executive Committee recommends to the Asian Football Confederation to positively consider their request."
Sources close to the developments said AIFF's statement has "mistakes" and the facts stated need "investigation."
"I-League has gained in popularity because of its reach and connect with fans. ISL is given all the good treatment and despite that, fan attendance has dwindled over the years. The AIFF is under pressure because Reliance is paying a lot of money for the federation's sustenance," the source said.
The strategy to rope in AFC seems to be a "pressure" tactic, said a club official. "The same AFC had asked the AIFF to make one league. AIFF failed to do so and now suggesting status quo for another three-fours years. Basically covering up their inability," he said.
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