There does not seem to be much in the way of romance in the upper echelons of Indian football.
Fans of Aizawl FC had no sooner started celebrating their I-League title last weekend then they had to start contemplating life in the second tier.
It was an amazing achievement. The team was was only established in 1984 and was relegated in 2016. They were given a reprieve by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) after two other clubs had dropped out of the top tier.
It means that this season has been something of a fairy tale and the team clinched the title on Sunday with a 1-1 draw with Shillong Lajong FC to finish ahead of Mohun Bagan, one of the traditional giants of Indian football.
The club from Mizoram – run on a shoestring when compared to the runners-up – were given a fine welcome as they returned home to the northeast of the country to give the football-loving region a first ever glimpse of the league trophy.
— Jayesh Rane (@jayeshrane11) May 2, 2017
But unless the AIFF changes its mind and its rules, then the champs will not get a chance to defend their title.
The problem is that the AIFF has plans to merge the I-League, the traditional top tier of the Indian football with the Indian Super League (ISL), a plan that will leave most clubs that are currently in the former playing in the second tier.
The ISL kicked off in 2014 and was a glitzy alternative to the existing I-league. Eight teams, or franchises, were bought by various high-profile businessmen, cricket legends and Bollywood stars, and they went about signing some big, if aging, names. The likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet were on one side of the white line with Zico, Peter Reid and Marco Materazzi in the dugout.
It was a standalone tournament that was perceived to have everything that the I-League did not – money, glamour, fans (crowds of over 25,000) and a media profile. What it didn’t have was any history or connection to the rest of the Indian football structure.
— Aizawl Football Club (@AizawlFC) April 30, 2017
The AIFF felt that they could change all that. If the ISL was brought into the official fold and placed on the top of the Indian football pyramid then it could solve at least some of their problems. The top two or three I-League teams could join in and the rest could make a decent second tier.
There are issues of course. The slots reserved for I-League teams in the ISL were really meant for Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal who are two of the oldest and biggest clubs in Asia. With those two the top tier, then the ISL gets some of the history and heft that it had lacked.
The price of this so-called progress is 150 million rupees ($2.3 milllion) that each club must pay to enter the promised land. And it is not one that the new champions, run on an annual budget of around $350,000, are able or willing to pay.
“Aizawl FC has submitted its formal claim to continue in the top league even after proposed merger of the existing top league with ISL,” the club said in a statement.
— Hero I-League (@ILeagueOfficial) April 30, 2017
“If no positive response is received from AIFF, the club will approach the Central Sports Minister, Prime Minister of India, and also the President of AFC [Asian Football Confederation].
“If all these steps fail, the club will have no other choice than to resort to worldwide protests; sitting demonstrations near AFC/FIFA offices, picketing of AIFF Office, mass hunger strike/fast unto death protest.”
That would obviously be an embarrassment for Indian football but so is the scenario of the Indian champions not being allowed to defend a title fairly and squarely won.
Regardless of what you think about the merging plan – and there are plenty of misgivings around – the Indian champions should be in the top tier of Indian football, whatever it looks like. Unlike any of the other teams who will be there, Aizawl would be there on football merit. They have earned their place after a season of blood, sweat and cheers and not the size of their wallet.
Anything else would just be wrong. The story is a fairy tale and the AIFF should be careful not to be the evil stepmother trying to keep its unwanted children from going to the ball.
The federation may not be happy that Aizawl won the league instead of a supposed bigger club but they should be. It shows that money isn’t everything and that when the referee blows the whistle that anything can happen. It is an important reminder.
So, come on AIFF, let football, not money, be the winner and let Aizawl defend their title next season. This is just the right thing to do.