I-League second division clubs welcome AIFF League Committee's recommendations but financial troubles loom
Short duration tournament for I-League second division clubs to decide promotion is a welcome respite for teams but they are gearing up for major financial troubles in near future with coronavirus lockdown impacting the economy
After weeks of speculations, rumours and suspense, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) League Committee on Saturday decided the fate of I-League and the second division league. Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan, who were on 39 points from 16 games and had already garnered an insurmountable lead at the top of the I-League table were declared as the champions. The committee also recommended to do away with relegation this season considering four rounds of the league could not have been completed due to the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
It was an expected decision with many of the participating clubs in favour of it considering the extra cost, if the league was to be completed in future. However, the decision that attracted larger anticipation was the decision over the fate of second division league. With the league far from being complete and the valued promotion slot still at stake, second division clubs were demanding for a return on the investment that they have made. The League Committee responded to the demands with a proposal of a shorter duration tournament next season for promotion to I-League 2020-21.
"In reference to the Hero 2nd Division, the Committee waits for approval over regulatory matters from the AIFF Executive Committee and the Asian Football Confederation to understand the feasibility of organising a shorter duration tournament next season for qualification to the Hero I-League 2020-21," the League Committee recommended. The approval of the AIFF for the recommendation is merely a formality but it will need ratification from the Asian Football Confederation.
A total of 17 teams are part of I-League second division this season with eight reserve sides of Indian Super League teams. Teams have been divided into three groups with Garhwal FC, Mohammedan Sporting Club and ARA FC leading their respective groups. The group stage was to be followed by a final round which was to be played in a single leg round-robin format, with the top team gaining promotion to the I-League first division. When football came to a halt in India due to COVID-19 , 28 games in second division were still remaining to be played, including the final round.
Welcome respite for clubs
With few sponsors and very little gate money, if any, promotion to the I-League remains the biggest prize for the second division clubs and the League Committee's decision has been welcomed by the clubs.
"It’s probably the best the AIFF could have done," says Garhwal FC CEO and co-owner Kishore Taid. "Money wise there’s not much return in second division but promotion is the challenge which we look at and we are happy that we will have a shot at it."
"We are in the middle of uncertain times hence it’s difficult to plan for anything but once things start to get normal, AIFF needs to contact all the clubs before coming to any conclusion as they did this time. They also need to give us a notice in advance so that teams can plan and prepare well for the tournament rather than conducting it on a short notice which won’t serve any purpose. AIFF has given the assurance that an advanced notice period will be given to clubs."
At the time of suspension of football activities in India, Garhwal were leading the Group A of the second division with 14 points from seven games and were one of the favourites to clinch promotion. Another favourite was Mohammedan Sporting Club who were at the top of Group B with 12 points from six games. The Kolkata based club is already gearing for the challenge ahead.
"We are aware of the AIFF's (League Committee) decisions on the I-League second division. And we were very hopeful for promotion this time around," said Sharique Ahmed, Football Secretary, Mohammedan Sporting Club. "If the AIFF has plans of resuming this the next season without the reserve teams we will take part in it as we have already spend a big amount for this team. Being a club without any financial assistance it will be a huge loss either way, so we will aim for promotion."
The decision to conclude the league next season, however, brings along with itself the challenge of retaining players for the competition. The football season in India comes to an end on 31st May and clubs have their players contracted till that period. The resumption of second division next season would involve extra cost with contract extensions. Clubs have so far cleared the players' payments till month of March.
"The matches in second division were suspended on 15th of March, we have paid all the dues to the players till then," Taid said. "And we have a mutual understanding with the players that contracts would get extended till whatever time the tournament takes place. And for the current period of no-action, we would help any player who is facing financial difficulty. So we have prepared for it and whichever way things go, we have a plan in place."
While few clubs have had arrangements with the players for an extension, few are in the process to reach a "middle ground".
"We will speak to the players face-to-face after the lockdown and we will try and reach a middle ground. Almost all salaries are updated till March. The well being of the players is of utmost priority. We expect and will try to keep the same squad (for upcoming matches)," Sharique informed.
The clubs are also looking for help from AIFF to keep their cost to a minimum when the second division resumes.
"Our expenses revolve around the variable and fixed costs. Accommodation, travelling, match organisation and others are the variables and right now we are not required to spend on them. But cost of employees and offices are to be paid in any case despite lack of action, so that the clubs have to bear. If planned well, the proposed tournament can be done from the AIFF’s budget itself with minimal cost to the clubs," Taid added.
Future still remains uncertain
Multiple second division clubs in past have folded operations due to financial crunch, such is the brutal nature of footballing ecosystem at this level. And while the League Committee's decision to conclude second division might have brought some much-needed respite to the club owners, the biggest challenge now remains raising a team for the next season regardless of promotion. coronavirus lockdown has adversely impacted the nation's economy with economic activities being put on hold. The current situation only indicates towards major financial trouble for the clubs in coming days which survive mainly on owners' money in absence of sponsors and other ways to raise money.
"Getting sponsors is going to be a big challenge for next season but otherwise also all the business are down. In such a case, to infuse new money into clubs would be very difficult," said Taid.
A few clubs also rely on their academies to raise money and even that has taken a hit, further piling up the misery.
"It is going to be very very difficult especially for a club like ours which has no financial backing or sponsorship," said Sharique. "This season we have made immense changes in our management system and style which has shown in our results. Getting back to the approach is utmost necessary.
" COVID-19 is a huge set back for us. Our residential academy was about to start by May, which has taken a set back as well. Even our youth programs are effected due to COVID-19 . Post-pandemic period will require very delicate revamping of the club economically."
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