FIFA has urged Minerva Punjab and the other agitating I-League clubs to work closely with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), who they believe are "best placed" to resolve the "complex issues" facing Indian football. Minerva Punjab co-owner Ranjit Bajaj, the most vocal of the protesting I-League representatives, sent back an angry response shortly afterward, expressing his lack of faith in the federation and its president Praful Patel, referring to the latter as 'dishonest'.
Six I-League clubs, led by former I-League champions Minerva Punjab, had written to FIFA earlier this month, questioning the AIFF's decision to award the top-league status to the Indian Super League (ISL). In response, FIFA had written to the AIFF asking for an update on the recommendations they had made along with the AFC in February 2018 for the reorganization of Indian football. Patel had subsequently proposed a three-year status quo for both leagues to run simultaneously.
Reacting to FIFA's letter, Bajaj said he would challenge the legality of the Master Rights Agreement (MRA), signed between the AIFF and its marketing and commercial partners IMG-Reliance in 2010, even if he is "the only one left".
Bajaj says the other five I-League clubs, which include Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, are yet to respond to his query about the next course of action. One of the I-League clubs' top official told ESPN he had no comment to offer because they hadn't received any communication from FIFA. Bajaj also intends to draw FIFA's attention to what he considers to be clear breach its statutes should the ISL become the top division of the country.
"I want to ask them that if AIFF are asking us to go against FIFA statutes, are you still fine with us doing that?" he said. "What the AIFF is asking us to do is against Article 9, which says the top league of your country has to have promotion-relegation and must be based principally on sporting merit."
Bajaj also intends to challenge Article 19 - which requires a national football governing body to operate without third-party interference - by citing the requirements of the MRA.
"I want to tell FIFA, if this is what you are asking us to do, and if you are okay with that, we will listen," he said. "Even if I am the only one left, I will still take it to court. I will challenge the MRA itself."
FIFA meanwhile, maintained its strong belief in the AIFF's ability to manage the issue.
"The review performed in 2018 did identify a number of complex issues which require a prudent and measured approach. We understand that based on this, the AIFF President has met the clubs and suggested a short-term solution until a more sustainable long-term solution can be found following continued consultation with all stakeholders. We therefore strongly believe that the AIFF is best placed to do this and we are confident that a thorough and effective process can be managed by the AIFF in its role as the governing body for football in India," wrote Mattias Grafstrom, FIFA's acting deputy secretary general (football).
The I-League clubs wanted the AIFF to integrate them into the ISL step-by-step, starting with the 2019-20 season as per the FIFA/AFC recommendations in 2018. However, AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said it is not feasible to suddenly expand the ISL to 16 teams.
"What FIFA is saying that has always been our take. Outsiders can only advise but implementation depends only on practicality. Clubs can only come through meritocracy and they have to provide financial guarantees that the league doesn't suffer in the event of a club shutting down. They ought to fulfil all the criteria. We can't just support a 16-team expansion," Das told PTI.
(With inputs from PTI)