Thursday's meeting between representatives of the I-League clubs and All India Football Federation (AIFF) officials, to discuss the way forward for the 2017-18 season, appears to have split the clubs on the issue of the number of foreign players to be registered and fielded by the teams. Even though five out of nine I-League clubs have opposed the move, AIFF general secretary Kushal Das told ESPN that a majority of the clubs are in favour of the recommendation.
The AIFF on Thursday had issued a press release, at the end of a three and a half hour discussion at the AIFF House in New Delhi, announcing that among the recommendations made by the I-League clubs was one seeking "permission to register eight foreign players out of which two should be of Asian origin, and a maximum of five foreign players should be allowed to play on the field, one among which needs to be a player of Asian origin."
The I-League currently allows teams to register and play a maximum of four foreigners, one of whom must be from a country from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), in keeping with the continental competition rules.
One of the attendees at the meeting mentioned that the suggestion of introducing more foreigners was supported primarily by Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, possibly in response to losing their best players to the ISL as a result of concurrent leagues being run this year. DSK Shivajians and Churchill Brothers preferred to stay silent on the topic, but it has been established that Aizawl FC, Minerva Punjab, Chennai City, Shillong Lajong and NEROCA have all expressed their dissatisfaction, and are expected to submit the same in writing.
East Bengal assistant general secretary Santi Ranjan Dasgupta told ESPN that fielding five foreigners was something that was met with the consensus of the other I-League clubs, a claim contradicted by Ranjit Bajaj, the owner of Minerva Punjab.
"We had a pre-meeting before coming to the AIFF House. There were points we all agreed to -- more money for away games, better broadcast facilities on the same channel as the ISL," Bajaj told ESPN. "But the foreigner decision was never mentioned even once. Then in the final few minutes of the discussion with the AIFF, the issue of foreigners was very sneakily brought to us by the Kolkata clubs. This is an attempt to ambush us at last minute."
"I told the meeting that I am deadly against the increase in foreign players for this particular season," Aizawl FC owner Robert Royte told ESPN. "Why did they not consider this the previous season? AFC is using the same regulation, other countries are also following. So why do it this season?"
Shillong Lajong didn't have a representative at Thursday's meeting -- there are only nine teams in the I-League at present following Bengaluru FC's move to the ISL -- but Lajong owner Larsing Ming Sawyan expressed his concerns over the proposal and hoped the league committee would reconsider it. "It is my personal opinion that when the ISL has reduced the number of foreigners in the starting eleven from six to five, there is no reason for the I-League to increase from four to five. Allowing registration of eight foreigners would be harmful for the game," he told ESPN.
According to Bajaj, no decision had been made on determining the number of foreigners at the end of the discussion. "They brought up this point about five minutes before the end of the meeting. We said we don't want to do it but things got a bit heated. So we said we will think about it and let you know. Then only a few minutes later when we were travelling back to our hotel we got an email suggesting that the teams had agreed to permitting eight foreigners," said Bajaj.
Highlighting the I-League consensus that is against the publicised "recommendation", Bajaj wrote to I-League CEO Sunando Dhar and Das on behalf of Minerva, Aizawl, NEROCA and Chennai City. In the email, available with ESPN, Bajaj said these clubs "have realized the inclusion of more foreigners will only benefit the Kolkata clubs", that they "do not support this move" and "are in talks with DSK and Shillong" who are "likely to agree with them formally soon."
Kushal Das, however, said he is yet to receive any written communication from Bajaj while also contradicting that the Minerva Punjab owner "agreed" to the foreigner rule in the meeting. "All of the teams agreed to this, though a few of them were of the opinion that this is not a route they would go down," he told ESPN. "But yes, there was a majority in favour of this recommendation.
"He (Ranjit Bajaj) agreed to this in the meeting, though he was one of the representatives who said they might not implement it if it comes through. I have not received any written communication from him yet.
"This is not a rule yet, and it is a recommendation only for the 2017-18 season. Perhaps the teams are of the opinion that there might be a crunch for Indian players."
Bajaj told ESPN that if the recommendations are accepted by the league committee, who are scheduled to meet on July 5, he might reconsider the future in the league for Minerva Punjab, a team that already had one of the lowest operating budgets in 2016-17. "I don't want to pay that kind of money on foreign players. It makes no sense to compete in the I-League then. I'd rather spend that money on my youth academy," he said.
For the representatives of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, increasing the number of foreign players may have been the only way to match the Indian Super League (ISL), which will be running alongside the I-League this season. Many are seeing this as a possible advantage that the big-budget Kolkata clubs want to have over the rest of the league, while there is a possibility that both teams could be looking to build a squad keeping a potential assimilation in to a future season of the ISL in mind.
"The eight foreigners' rule is something that the ISL has introduced," East Bengal's Dasgupta said on the matter. "The ISL has said that from this season, their clubs are allowed to field five foreign players in the starting line-up and three in the dugout. AIFF and IMG-Reliance told us that to keep I-League at par with ISL, they would have no objection if we were to go in for the same rule."
(With additional reporting by Sharda Ugra and Debayan Sen)