I-League season hangs in balance as AIFF waits, watches through coronavirus delays

Brandon Vanlalremdika (L) of East Bengal takes on Munmun Lugun of Punjab FC during an I-League game. Both clubs are on 23 points from 16 games, and trail only Mohun Bagan, who have already sealed up the title race this season. AIFF Media

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is likely to take a decision on the future of the ongoing I-League season in the first week of April, following consultations with the clubs. Some of the teams are unwilling to play out the remaining 41 games, with Mohun Bagan already crowned champions and having effectively taken the AFC slot on offer.

All of AIFF's tournaments were suspended in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, initially till March 31, though India has since gone into a countrywide lockdown, which extends up to April 14.

AIFF general secretary Kushal Das refused to speculate on the likelihood of calling off the remainder of the season, though, telling ESPN, "Nothing can be done till the situation is clear around April 14. The clubs are also saying they will wait and watch."

However, given that there's been little slowdown in the suspected cases of COVID-19 since the lockdown, it seems likely the discussion might end with the federation offering the teams a chance to freeze their current positions, and split the prize money equally among all the teams in the running for the second place.

'Even thinking about the I-League is a sin'

With the league having come to an abrupt stop, most clubs have sent their players back home, including East Bengal, who are tied for second place with Punjab FC, both teams on 23 points from 16 matches.

East Bengal's assistant general secretary Santi Ranjan Dasgupta said most of the foreign players are still in Kolkata, but local players have gone home. He said the club hasn't had any discussion about resumption with the federation. "There's nothing we can do right now -- not even use our own ground facilities. If we are to start discussing fixtures, it would be a shame for mankind," he told ESPN. "In this kind of situation, when the Olympics are also postponed by a year, even thinking about the I-League is a sin."

For former champions Chennai City, the postponement has meant an added hassle, as they are the only Indian team in AFC competition this year. Chennai secured a 2-2 draw at home against Maziya of Maldives in their first AFC Cup group stage match on March 11, before their remaining matches were postponed.

"Even if the season is going to be extended, we don't know when, that's the first thing. The contractual obligations are another," said CEO and owner Rohit Ramesh. "Number three, [there's] the maintenance of the grounds. We have three home games out of the four that are left. It is going to be a monumental task to get each in place. It's a long way off and I'm not too sure how viable it is to prolong this season."

'Over a crore just for four games makes no sense'

ESPN understands that the original schedule for the I-League had the matches ending by April, and all contracts between players and their clubs were drawn keeping that timeline in mind. With the last I-League match having taken place on March 15, most of the teams have already sent their players home, with some of the foreign players, especially from Spain, staying on. Their contracts are still being honoured, but any extension would mean heavy additional costs.

It is understood AIFF are keen on seeing the league being wrapped up by May. Even if the season gets extended by only a month, Ramesh estimated the cost of this on his team to include extending permissions from Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT) to host matches at the Nehru Stadium in Coimbatore.

"Just my players' salaries would come to INR 40 lakh [approx. US$53,000], plus I have got accommodation to look into, so you can add another 15 lakh [approx. $20,000]," said Ramesh. "For travel, we have to go to East Bengal [alone], so we are okay, maybe another 5 lakh [approx. $6,630], and my overall cost with regards to the ground -- we don't know the condition it will be in -- could be between 40 and 60 lakh. Over a crore [approx. $ 132,000] easily, just for four games."

"It's okay if we are the top league of India, but realistically speaking, we are first division. To spend one crore for four games, when you've got the title decided, the AFC spot covered, personally speaking, doesn't make sense."

The question of readiness

Former champions Punjab FC had their players together for a while, but co-owner Ranjit Bajaj said only Cameroonian striker Dipanda Dicka has stayed in Chandigarh since the national lockdown came into effect on March 25.

"Getting people back here, putting a squad and staff together, booking their travel and accommodation, getting them fit -- at least two weeks of fitness work is required," said Bajaj. "If you take three weeks from April 15, they can't start till about May 5-6. They are cutting this really fine, and assuming that everything goes perfectly."

Ramesh put the minimum time required to prepare for resumption as two months, which would include getting permission from SDAT to host games, and the possibility of needing to schedule practice games to get players back to match fitness. "Let's be honest -- it's a month off. It's not that they can do anything about it, because in a realistic way, you can't even go to a gym," he said.

Can the AIFF stretch the season to any date?

In the AIFF's document on rules and regulations for the I-League -- updated for the 2015-16 season and available on their website -- there is no provision for season extension due to cancellation of games. Under Section 14 of "matters not provided for", it says "cases of force majeure" are to be decided by the I-League Committee, whose decision will be final.

The second division of I-League was also underway when the pandemic forced postponement of games, with teams like Mohammedan Sporting and Bengaluru United fighting it out with reserve teams of Bengaluru FC, FC Goa and Kerala Blasters for a place in the final round, originally scheduled for April-end. The postponement of games -- which included India's World Cup qualifiers against Qatar, Afghanistan and Bangladesh -- and prevalent situation in the country has also cast a shadow over the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, scheduled for November this year.

"We also have the Santosh Trophy final round that is pending," an official told ESPN, mentioning that promotion and relegation cannot be discussed right now. "We can't proceed with next season until this season is completed. We can resume any time. It is only dependent on the government advisory."

Ramesh felt all teams had no option but to wait for the official word from the AIFF, which is considering its options and will take a decision 'abiding by directives from relevant authorities'. "As regards clarity, it is essential. The cost is just increasing as we wait," Ramesh said.