The AIFF's decision to suspend relegation for the 2020-21 season of the I-League could have ill-effects in both the short and long term.
The decision by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to do away with relegation for the I-League 2020-21 came as little surprise. For anyone who’s followed Indian football in recent times, it is a familiar tale. After all, this is the third time a team is being saved from relegation. Aizawl FC in 2016 and Churchill Brothers in 2018 have both experienced this good fortune. That explains why the news of the same slipped under the radar this time. However, there is an argument to be made that now more than ever, this decision should not have been taken.
The reason given for freezing relegation is the circumstances surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, the Imphal-based NEROCA FC will not drop down to the third division – since the I-League itself is now the de-facto second division.
Yet a quick look at the facts means this decision could have ill-effects in both the short and long term.
During an AIFF meeting held on Friday, AIFF technical director Isac Doru cited the examples of 23 leagues around the world where relegation from the top flight was frozen.
Two of the leagues mentioned were the Eredivisie (Netherlands) and J-League (Japan). Perfectly sound logic on the surface. Yet on closer inspection, the argument appears to have more holes than Swiss cheese.
The Eredivisie stopped relegation in 2019-20 because the league itself was suspended. Unlike leagues in England, Spain, Italy and Germany, Netherlands chose not to play out the remaining fixtures behind closed doors.
What’s more, the decision was not a popular one among Dutch second division sides. They promptly took the Dutch federation to court, which in turn upheld the decision.
The J-League went one better. Not only did they do away with relegation from J1, two sides from J2 got promotion. Thus, the league was expanded to a twenty-team league. Again, it must be noted that the league itself was also suspended.
Why is this important? Because the 2020-21 season of the I-League happened in full. Granted, it took place in one neutral venue and behind closed doors, but no matches were suspended.
When the 2019-20 season of the I-League was suspended and relegation called off, it made sense. Repeating this for the current season, however, reeks of the type of arbitrary decision-making the AIFF is renowned for.
When the Indian Super League (ISL) was granted the status of India’s main football league, it was a given that a promotion and relegation system would be set up.
The AIFF’s fabled roadmap dictates that promotion and relagation between the leagues will start from 2024-25. Yet in the light of current events, do these words mean anything?
After all, the AIFF top brass have done this before. Aizawl FC were saved from relegation in 2016 due to – get this – “heartwarming performances”.
Churchill Brothers avoided this fate in 2018 saying Goa needed a team in Indian football’s top flight. They also blamed club mismanagement. Amazingly, this raised no questions and they kept their top-flight status.
What is to stop them from taking a similar decision in favour of an ISL side, thus keeping the league closed and stopping any upward mobility for I-League teams?
The AIFF made it clear that all clubs unanimously agreed to suspend relegation. Will these same clubs be okay if ISL clubs propose delaying relegation and promotion in 2024-25 – and the AIFF agrees?
Aside from being arbitrary, the decision also reeks of short-term thinking – a trait all-too-familiar in Indian football. Yet this one is more harmful, as a precedent for no relegation now exists.
Just how much damage this can cause in the future remains to be seen.