By getting former champions Churchill Brothers reinstated in the I-League, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) seems to have performed a Cruyff Turn that is effective and embarrassing in equal measure.
Effective, because it adds a team to the I-League from where clubs have pulled out with alarming regularity. And embarrassing because it reverses the AIFF’s stand on licensing requirements and goes against what the federation’s officials have said about successful clubs that have no fan base worth mention.
Loosely called legacy clubs, they have been criticised by the AIFF top brass who have highlighted their financial problems, lack of supporters and even pointed out how in three years Bengaluru FC could achieve what they haven’t.
Twice champions of the I-League and winners of the Federation Cup, Churchill Brothers ticks all the boxes AIFF loves to hate. Not just that, the club’s officials have been critical of an AIFF product --- the Indian Super League --- and how the federation’s functioned over the past few years. They even took the AIFF to court.
Yet, following an hour-long emergency committee meeting of the federation on Thursday, the AIFF got Churchill Brothers back. “In compliance with the specific direction of the Hon’ble High Court and also Churchill Brothers Sports Club’s commitment to fulfilling the licensing criteria as stipulated in the order dated November 28, 2016, the Committee unanimously decided to allow them to participate in the season 2016-17,” said a terse media release issued by AIFF.
Named after Churchill Alemao, who joined the Nationalist Congress Party in October where AIFF president Praful Patel is a senior leader, Churchill Brothers were expelled from the I-League for not fulfilling licensing obligations in 2014. The AIFF had then said it showed how serious it was in getting clubs to fall in line. And even though nothing’s changed on that front, Churchill Brothers are back.
Don’t blame other I-League clubs if they now wonder why they went through the exercise of getting a licence to compete in AIFF and AFC tournaments; a cumbersome and costly process that involves a lot of paperwork and a host of assurances that they are committed to work for the uplift of the sport.
The AIFF hasn’t also explained why the appeals for reinstatement by Mohammedan Sporting, a club older than Fifa and with fans all over India, and United SC, who along with Churchill Brothers had failed to meet licensing requirements, were not considered.
After Dempo pulled out of the 2016-17 I-League on Wednesday, India’s premier competition was reduced to seven teams including Aizawl FC who were relegated but allowed to stay. Five new clubs have bid for entry and their claims would be considered on Sunday. Sources in the AIFF said it is looking to have a minimum of nine teams for the league scheduled to begin next month. With Churchill Brothers, they now have eight.
This isn’t the first time the AIFF shifted goal posts. After Mohun Bagan refused to play the second half of an I-League derby in 2012-13, the federation didn’t follow competition rules that stipulated the club be immediately suspended and banned for two more seasons. It fined Mohun Bagan, docked points but let them back. Then, it was Mohun Bagan’s massive fan following that had led to not following the rule book, the AIFF had said.
Patel and AIFF general secretary Kushal Das didn’t return HT’s calls on Thursday evening seeking a reaction on the reinstatement and didn’t reply to text messages.