ISL ignores AIFF request, season opener to clash with Asian Games

Ever since the All India Football Federation showed interest in participating at the Asian Games, there have been multiple issues that have been cropping up.
Indian Super League. (Photo | ISL Twitter)
Indian Super League. (Photo | ISL Twitter)

BENGALURU: The calendar for the upcoming Indian Super League season was announced on Thursday. The first match will be played on September 21, the same day that the Indian team will line up against Bangladesh for their second match of the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.

“The 10th season of the Indian Super League kicks off on September 21 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kochi, with a blockbuster clash between rivals Kerala Blasters FC and Bengaluru FC,” said a press release issued by the ISL. The announcement confirmed what, despite repeated assurances that the season would be postponed, seemed inevitable.

This has brought the debate between country and club to the fore once again. The squad that Indian coach Igor Stimac initially announced had multiple players from many clubs. Bengaluru FC, who take on Kerala Blasters in the season opener, have six players in the squad, including captain Sunil Chhetri and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. Mumbai City FC have three. With India’s participation at the Asian Games uncertain until very late, these clubs had just over a month to deal with the situation. Something that has not gone down well with the clubs.

Even the Sports Ministry and the Sports Authority of India are not amused. Ever since the All India Football Federation showed interest in participating at the Asian Games, there have been multiple issues that had been cropping up. The sports ministry and the SAI have had discussions with the AIFF who have assured that the best players will be available for the Asian Games. The Sports Ministry had mandated that only teams that are top eight in Asia can participate in the Games. The Blue Tigers, eighteenth in Asia, was nowhere near this benchmark and had not participated in the last edition as well. In the end, after much hue and cry, the ministry ended up giving the football team a relaxation from its eligibility criteria.

The development further complicates an already convoluted scenario. Statements coming from the AIFF’s side in recent days have clearly placed the onus on the league. The league’s announcement of the fixtures comes just hours after AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey, who is also the IOA joint secretary and acting CEO, stated in the media that he would request the league to postpone the fixtures by ten days, keeping in mind national interest. It would seem that the league, by announcing the fixtures right on the heels of this statement, has completely rejected Chaubey’s suggestion.

This doesn’t augur well for the AIFF. The Sports Authority of India had been assured that the best team would participate at the Games.  Even if clubs agree to a compromise formula of sending two players each from every club, it will not be anywhere near the team that national team coach Igor Stimac would have hoped to pick. SAI sources reiterated that AIFF had promised that they would get relaxation from ISL clubs and get the best team. “We had an in-depth discussion with AIFF on this, prior to the recommendation,” informed SAI. The SAI also had discussions with the coach Igor Stimac who expressed confidence that the team would do their best.

India play their first match of the Asian games in just 12 days. If things are to be resolved, it would have to be done fast. The next couple of days will reveal if Indian football can dig itself out of this mess.

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The New Indian Express