Aizawl FC's Demotion After Winning the I-League is Unfair and Wrong

Corporate interests are guiding the All India Football Federation to the disadvantage of smaller teams.

As if wiping the floor with the best sides in the I-League was not enough, Aizawl FC’s fans chose to literally sweep it. The hysterical celebrations had left a mess in the stands of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Shillong—the fans stepped in to tidy the place up. Aizawl had won its first-ever I-League title, a competition it was not even certain to play after being relegated last season.

But a dramatic turnaround followed and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) gave the club a second go at it. It was a chance the club did not pass up. A miraculous run of results gave the fans reasons to celebrate and earn some admirers of their own. Aizawl won the league, clean and fair.

But as the club’s supporters went about clearing the mess they had made, the AIFF pondered how to go about cleaning up some of its own. The country’s football governing body, which is increasingly servile to IMG-Reliance’s interests, plans to establish the franchise-based Indian Super League as India’s premier football competition. Consequently, the current first division would suffer a demotion in its status. With only Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC invited to be a part of the reformed league—which may begin this November—Aizawl FC look set to miss out.

But of course, the AIFF’s moralising will not stop. The federation’s General Secretary Kushal Das told DNA, “Look, even if Aizawl FC do not play in the country’s top league, it doesn’t mean that the road ends for them. They can still play in the second division, and continue to grow their club there… So, Aizawl FC need not lose heart even if they are not part of the league.” Imagine winning a competition on a relatively shoestring budget and being told to not lose heart when you are denied your place for the next season. Yes, that is going to grow the club.

The AIFF President Praful Patel, meanwhile, set new standards for evasive comments. He told The Indian Express that the body is “working towards doing something in a nicer way.” If any of us had any doubts, he reassured us, “Everything is going fine. Just relax. Don’t get into all these issues. Everybody is talking about this one thing (merged league). Is there no other thing in Indian football?”

The possibly bleak fate of India’s football champion, it seems, should not hold our undivided attention. Nothing wrong here. Move on, you journalists. For instance, why not talk about the wonderful contribution made by IMG-Reliance to Indian football?

So Aizawl is being punished because it had the audacity to win the league on an incredibly small budget of Rs 1.5 crore, by popular estimates. IMG-Reliance, though, expects owners to spend a one-time fee of Rs15 crore, in addition to team-building expenses for the revamped league.

This money-oriented vision for football development permeates the AIFF. No wonder then that earlier this year, IMG-Reliance executed a power grab which would cause murmurs of disapproval anywhere. Now the AIFF committees have eight officials from the federation’s commercial partner, whose voice is heard in the selection of team coaches, legal matters and other operational issues. Of course, the federation’s officials found a way to justify it.

Apparently, IMG-R’s role as the commercial partner of the AIFF was not enough. The technical committee could not retain the former Indian captain and its chairman Bhaichung Bhutia but it had room for Reliance Sports CEO Sundar Raman. Raman, of course, was in-charge of the Indian Premier League (IPL) when the 2013 spot-fixing scandal unravelled and he later left the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) under a cloud. Although the Lodha Committee subsequently cleared his name, citing lack of evidence, the Mudgal Report had revealed that he interacted with a bookie and he was also aware of Gurunath Meiyappan and Raj Kundra’s involvement in betting activities.

The future of Indian football certainly lies in these safe hands. No wonder then that Aizawl FC’s owner Robert Romawia Royte fears for the future of his club. “I woke up today and it was the best feeling – to be the owner of a champion club. But the whole day, the question has been bothering me: What will happen to Aizawl now? How can the reigning champions be relegated to second division? We will not accept it, no chance… How silly will it be if the India’s champions are playing in Asia but back home, they are not allowed to play in the main league?”

The questions raised by Royte, when he spoke to The Indian Express, are pertinent. Reports have suggested that the AIFF will discuss the status of Aizawl this Saturday but one can only wonder what would happen if the club is demoted to the second division. True to its word, on Tuesday, the Mizoram side wrote to the AIFF and shared a statement which listed the options it would pursue if its demand is not met. From approaching the central government and continental football administrators, Aizawl also suggested that it would organise public protests. Even a fast unto death may take place.

Of course, the statement was released to create political pressure on the AIFF as it mulls over which road to take. We have been down this path before. After finishing second-from-bottom last season, Aizawl was initially demoted because the side which came last, DSK Shivajians, was protected from relegation for three years. It was part of the deal offered by the AIFF for encouraging corporate investment.

However, after a popular campaign which saw the Mizoram Football Association (MFA) write to the AIFF calling for Aizawl’s reinstatement and a spectacular display by the team on the pitch as it made the Federation Cup final, the club was recalled to the I-League first division. It, of course, helped matters that three Goan clubs Dempo, Sporting Clube de Goa and Salgaocar had pulled out of the league. Those teams protested against the same AIFF plans which are set to demote Aizawl now. Faced with an incredibly low number of sidess in the league, the AIFF swooped on an opportunity to build goodwill and recalled the Mizoram-based club.

It is worth recalling, though, a poster which was spotted at Aizawl’s Federation Cup semifinal last year – “Dear AIFF, please judge AFC by points and not money.” Indeed, the federation is guilty of committing the same mistake again. In its appetite to build a more “marketable” competition, the AIFF is at the risk of damaging one of the most wonderful stories in Indian football.

Until 2011, Aizawl FC had been in a defunct state for over a decade. Indeed it is ironic that the club, in its previous avatar, was known to be ahead of its times. Setup by Benjamin Khiangte in 1984, the club could sign top players by offering Maruti cars on loan to them. This worked as a counterweight to the stable employment provided by government-run teams.

However, Aizawl fell on hard times and it was revived in 2011 by a group of friends who wished to see their club play in the I-League. Winning the competition was a far-fetched idea. The current club president Royte—who enjoys significant political influence in the region—took on the responsibility for funding its operations, in addition to financial support by Tata Trusts.

This season, under the astute leadership of Kuwaiti manager Khalid Jamil, the club turned a corner as it became nearly unstoppable at home while demonstrating a maturity which had not been usually associated with its play. The club has a significant Mizo presence in its squad and it continues to heavily scout local players. The state government’s decision to build artificial football turfs in 2010 gave a much-needed fillip to the football ecosystem in Mizoram. There are no less than nine such venues across the state, including the Lammual Ground in Aizawl, where the team was welcomed after it confirmed its status as the league champion.

Furthermore, the Mizoram Premier League is an eight-team local competition which helps to find the next breed of talented footballers. All of its matches are held at Lammual Ground and televised locally. Such competitions are a rarity in India; no wonder then that Mizoram continues to blaze a trail in the sport. The state won its first Santosh Trophy in 2014 and now Aizawl’s success has only embellished its credentials.

However, some important gains would be lost if Aizawl is not allowed to keep its hard-earned status. With its insistence on youth development and building a professional organisation, the club has established multiple academies across Mizoram. If the AIFF’s mooted plans go ahead, Aizawl will not be able to find a place in the top division for seven years as the elite clubs will be protected from relegation. The bullet which the club had seemingly dodged last year may finally pierce its ambitions.

Aizawl owner Royte, of course, will continue to fight. “I can only hope that the AIFF will include us. It’s a natural thing, no? I am looking for sponsors to invest in the team. But having less money does not mean we are sent to second division. That cannot be a reason. You can’t ignore money, surely. But football can’t only be about money.”

In normal circumstances, of course, it would be natural for the AIFF to include Aizawl in next season’s competition. But one cannot be sure at the moment. The uncertainty, in fact, might be familiar to Aizawl’s fans.

On Sunday, as the decisive league game neared its end, Shillong Lajong was presented with a gilt-edged chance to dash the Mizoram side’s title hopes. However, the shot hit the post and Aizawl survived to complete its remarkable story. So small were the margins that it was a genuinely heart-stopping moment. But once Aizawl escaped that, it should have been the end of its worries. Turns out that is not the case. Just like the final minutes on Sunday evening, Aizawl finds its fate hanging in the air.