The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has finally decided that the time has come to honour a particular contract it had signed back in 2010, according to a report by Times of India. The contract in question refers to a 15-year Master Rights Agreement (MRA) whose original signatories were AIFF and IMG-Reliance. It is currently constituted in the name of Reliance subsidiary Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), in which broadcaster Star India also holds stakes. The implications are huge. Once enforced, the Indian Super League (ISL) would become Indian football's top division league, displacing the I-League from this position.
“It’s in the contract (that ISL will be the top league). Initially, we felt that let the tournament happen and then we will see. After five years, we have to honour the contract. Let the executive committee decide," Times of India quoted AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das as saying.
When asked whether ISL will be elevated to the position of being the numero uno league, Kushal Das said that the decision rests with the Executive Committee of the AIFF.
"I have just mentioned what is in the contract and have also clearly stated that I have no authority to take such decisions. It is the Executive Committee which will decide," Kushal Das later told IANS.
The narrative around the ISL has been changing almost every year since its inception in 2014. It started as a tournament and was developed into a league only last year when its season was stretched to six months, along with international breaks.
The AIFF always maintained that I-League was the top division football league of the country but recently the attitude has looked to be changing. With I-League clubs beginning to question their own and the league's future, AIFF has come out with narratives that I-League has just not worked and failed to generate the interest and revenue that they initially thought it would.
Ever since the start of ISL, the whispers always existed that it would eventually be made the top division league and it now seems to be coming true.
According to the report, an executive committee meeting of the AIFF is all set to be held next month, where ISL shall officially be crowned top league. The transition is not without perks. The 2010 MRA, wherein AIFF grants FSDL the “full and unfettered right and ability to establish the ISL and to decide the format, rules and structure of the ISL and the teams and players which will compete in it", will see the AIFF walking out of the deal 700 crores richer. The contract also contains a clause whereby the I-League could be "reconstituted, replaced and/or discontinued (temporarily or permanently)".
It seems the AIFF would go with the latter choice apropos of the I-League. The report suggests that a presentation made by the AIFF before its stakeholders back in May 2016 made it pretty clear that the I-League would be dismantled. Instead, a new league, tentatively titled League One, shall fill its stead. A few stipulations come along with the proposed League One. No league from League One can gain entry into the ISL or compete for a continental slot. The two AFC Cup play-off spots will be reserved for the ISL and the Super Cup victors.
With the Indian football structure starting to be altered, the future for the I-League clubs looks bleak. Fearing being thrown into the second division is what prompted the clubs to write a letter to AIFF questioning their future and then boycotting the Super Cup in protest.
The I-League clubs have even submitted to AIFF a proposed roadmap of a league with all the ISL and I-League teams in top division, but are yet to receive any response from the AIFF.
Speaking to IANS, Gokulam Kerala president V.C. Praveen said that it was a sad day for the I-League clubs. "If this is true and the AIFF has signed such a contract, then they have done great injustice to Indian football," he rued.
While Minerva Punjab FC owner Ranjit Bajaj wasn't available for a comment, a senior club official said: "Chaos! It's so disappointing."
Although century old clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have been cautious in their approach, an East Bengal official said that an official press note would be issued soon.