Newly crowned I-League champions Aizawl FC have said in a statement that they will resort to a "fast unto death" if, as is being speculated, they are denied a chance to defend their title next year.
Despite winning the title for the first time in their history, it has been widely reported that Aizawl will have no place in the restructured domestic tournament that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and its commercial partners IMG-Reliance are planning to launch in November this year. Furthermore, the absence of promotion and relegation in this new tournament means Aizawl may not even play top-flight football anytime soon.
As per the new format, the eight existing Indian Super League (ISL) clubs are expected to be joined by at least three teams from the I-League, but Aizawl are currently not a part of the merger plans.
In an interview to DNA, AIFF general secretary Kushal Das had hinted at the Mizoram based club not being part of the new league. "Look, even if Aizawl FC do not play in the country's top league, it doesn't mean that the road ends for them," Das said.
"They can still play in the second division, and continue to grow their club there. We will show even the second division matches live on television, and not just the top league. So, Aizawl FC need not lose heart even if they are not part of the league."
Aizawl's secretary general Vanlalnghaka Chchawnchhek said the club released their statement following Das' comments.
"We released the statement after Kushal Das said Aizawl FC were going to be playing in second division. They are trying to downgrade us to second division. We have to claim what we deserve," Chchawnchhek told ESPN.
The statement issued by the club read: "Aizawl FC has submitted its formal claim to AIFF to continue in the top league even after proposed merger of the existing top league with ISL.
"If no positive response is received from AIFF,the club will approach Central sports Minister,Prime Minister of India and also President of AFC.If all these steps are failed,the Club will have no other choice but will resort to world wide protests,sitting demonstration near AFC/FIFA offices,picketing of AIFF Office,mass hunger striker/fast unto death protest."
Aizawl FC has submitted its formal claim to AIFF to continue in the top league... pic.twitter.com/Z43cHEV0OA
- Aizawl Football Club (@AizawlFC) May 2, 2017
While Sunando Dhar, the I-League's CEO, had told ESPN on Tuesday that "we haven't come up with a concrete plan yet" regarding the merger, it is believed that the AIFF is only in talks with Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC, who finished second, third and fourth respectively.
As it currently stands, money is a key criteria set by the AIFF and IMG-R for a team to be a part of the new league, with owners expected to pay Rs 15 crore as franchise fee, in addition to the cost of building a team and running a club. For context, Aizawl's entire budget for their season was an estimated Rs 1.5 crores, a feat that did not go unnoticed by Dhar.
"Obviously, the performances of Aizawl and Lajong [who recorded their best-ever finish of fifth this season] show the importance of investment in youth," Dhar told ESPN.
"It helps in working with a manageable budget, it helps in growing footballers from a region, and consequently helps in community growth and greater fan engagement."
However, Aizawl say that while they indeed operate on a miniscule budget, they could scale up if they have to.
"There is a possibility we can raise that (ISL franchise fee) money. If they are saying we are playing in the top league, it will not be difficult for us to get sponsors especially after our winning this year. But the problem is that the AIFF general secretary is saying we are going to play the second division," Chchawnchhek said.
"If we are demoted, that will create a problem regarding sponsors. Why would people come out to sponsor us then?"
Chchawnchhek said there had been no communication between the club and the AIFF. "For now we are waiting until Saturday. The AIFF is having a meeting then to decide the future of the ISL. Only after that will we decide what to do next."
Aizawl's owner Robert Royte, though, said on Monday that he expected his club to be included in the ISL and would not accept any other decision.
"How can the reigning champions be relegated to the second division? We will not accept it, no chance," Royte said.