Salgaocar Football Club and Sporting Clube de Goa have decided to leave the I-League with effect from the forthcoming season over the All-India Football Federation's decision to restructure the national football league system. The decision was made public in a joint statement issued by the two clubs on Friday.
The AIFF's draft plan, made public last month, is to form a three-tier football system in India from 2017-18. The Indian Super League (ISL) will form the top tier of competition and will be insulated from relegation; the I-League and its lower division will become the second and third divisions, with relegation and promotion only taking place between these two tiers of competition.
"Over the past few weeks, Salgaocar Football Club and Sporting Clube de Goa have had several rounds of discussions and have deliberated the impact that the May 17th proposal will have on the state of the sport," the statement said. "It is clear that the proposal is highly discriminatory, goes against sporting merit, is unworkable for I-League clubs and hampers Goa, which is the best represented state in the I-League, the most."
The AIFF did not immediately respond to the development, but in a statement issued later in the night, they expressed their "regret and surprise over the sudden decision" of the two teams.
"We along with our Marketing partners have been very transparent sharing our thoughts with all stakeholders regarding the way forward for Indian Football. It was clearly stated that the shared draft was only a proposal ad we would like suggestions from various stakeholders," Kushal Das, the AIFF general secretary, said.
The plan - which AIFF consistently denies is set in stone - has been backed by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). "Building a strong and highly competitive local league plays an important role in achieving success in the AFC Champions League," AFC president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa told the Times of India earlier this week. "The restructuring in Indian football, with strong guidance by the AIFF and its president Praful Patel, can definitely be the catalyst for club football to thrive and compete among the continent's best."
In their statement, the clubs called the AIFF's proposals "shocking and disheartening" and "heavily biased against the I-League and its clubs". They said this would relegate the I-League to a "second-tier league... despite the repeated claims made by representatives of AIFF and FIFA that the I-League was the premier league competition in the country."
The statement details the sequence of events from that May 17 meeting. It said the proposals were circulated among all stakeholders, who gave their feedback as sought. "The lack of response from the AIFF is telling, and makes it clear that the fate of the world's most popular sport in the world's second most populous nation would be decided unilaterally.
"We therefore have no option but to believe that the AIFF will enforce the May 17 proposal, which would promote the ISL to the nation's premier tournament with a 'pay to play' franchisee model with no promotion or relegation. Furthermore, it guarantees the winner of the ISL representation at the AFC level, with the other available spot going to the winner of a tournament that again is heavily skewed in favour of ISL franchisees."
"This effectively removes any incentive for a club team to participate in the restructured I-League, given that monetary incentives were never a contributing factor. The lack of the latter was ensured by the AIFF who unfairly sold the rights to the I-League without consulting all its stakeholders. Remarkably, while demanding professionalism and fiscal responsibility from I-League clubs without itself reflecting the same, the AIFF has still not settled dues to I-League clubs dating as far back as 2008."
Reacting to the allegations of the clubs about financial matters, Sunando Dhar, the CEO of the I-League, said: "The amount for fielding age-group sides in the respective competitions of AIFF which were pending since 2008, was agreed in an I-League committee meeting that the same would be adjusted against the I-League participation fees. This has been in practice for the last three-four years."
The clubs' decision is expected to trigger an emotive public response given Salgaocar's standing in Indian football. Former India captain Bruno Coutinho, who has a long association with the club, was among the first to react.
"It is really shocking to hear [of the decision]," he told ESPN. "The idea of a second tier is not something clubs will take easily. If you think about it, the ISL is just a commercial entity. For sports to come up, there must be one league that can benefit everybody. ISL is just a commercial venture; there are people who go to watch ISL games who do not know head or tail of football.
"When the NFL was launched, we had just eight teams in it, but the quality of play and the fan following was at par with the ISL. A Dempo-Salgaocar match would have a minimum crowd of 15,000 people, while it now only gets about 2,000. AIFF must think about this. They must join hands with these clubs and form a league that can last. You have to work with the clubs, because if your stakeholders leave your side tomorrow, what are you going to do?
"I am extremely sad today because I have been Salgaocar's loyal soldier from day one. In our era, we had a very successful run between 1993 and 1998, but for me the high was back-to-back Federation Cup victories, especially beating East Bengal in the final at Salt Lake Stadium in front of 1,31,000 people. That was the best time of my life."