Aizawl FC are feeling somewhat deflated. Photo via Flickr
Aizawl FC are feeling somewhat deflated. Photo via Flickr

Less than a week after winning the I-League, India’s top football league, Aizawl FC is fighting relegation. The club could find itself in the strange position of challenging for continental honors such as the Asian Champions League while playing in India’s 2nd division next year due to a major reorganization of the Indian football league structure.

Over the past year, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has been working on a plan to merge the I-League, the traditional top division of Indian football, with the lucrative Indian Super League run by IMG-Reliance. Aizawl FC, a relative upstart which only qualified for the I-League in 2015, was not included in the proposed new top division. Following its title triumph, the club said in a statement that it has submitted a formal claim to the AIFF requesting its inclusion in the new league. The statement, which was posted to Twitter, went on to declare that if the request is declined, the club would resort to protest, including “mass hunger strike [and] fast unto death.”

Kushal Das, General Secretary of the AIFF, has been quoted by DNA as saying that Aizawl should not see the second division as the end of the road since those matches would be televised too. In response, Robert Royte, owner of Aizawl FC spoke to of plans to co-ordinate a worldwide protest movement that would lobby everyone from the FIFA to the Indian Parliament to ensure Aizawl’s inclusion. The AIFF is yet to issue an official statement on the matter.

Aizawl FC, a small, unfancied club from Mizoram state in India’s northeast, was participating in only its second season in the I-League this year and was actually relegated after finishing second from bottom at the end of its debut season. The club’s fairytale run to the title was only made possible due to the withdrawal of other teams over objections to the proposed new league. The club’s unexpected victory has now created huge problems for the AIFF, whose new league would lack credibility without the reigning champions.

“We are awaiting the AIFF’s decision. We have been told they are going to have a meeting on Saturday,” said Vanlalnghaka Chhawnchhek, General Secretary of Aizawl FC. “We don’t have money but we have patience. We will wait and see and do whatever it takes.”

“We don’t have money but we have patience. We will wait and see and do whatever it takes”

The new top division would only see the participation of three teams from the existing I-League structure – Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC, all established clubs with large fan bases. All other clubs would be forced to play in two separate divisions without the possibility of promotion to the top tier. “They have chosen money over merit. It is a kind of racism,” alleges Vanlalnghaka, alluding to the fact that clubs were chosen based on their commercial prospects rather than footballing prowess.

Entry to the Indian Super League is based on a franchise system similar to America’s Major League Soccer rather than the traditional model of promotion and relegation followed in most other countries. It was launched in 2013 as a collaboration between Rupert Murdoch’s Star India, sports management group IMG and Reliance Industries, which is controlled by Mukesh Ambani, the country’s richest man. In its short run, the league has managed to dwarf the stadium attendance and TV viewership figures of the I-League, resulting in a clamor for it to be legitimized as India’s official top league.