Hyderabad FC in crisis: FlFA ban to freefall via unpaid salaries and player exodus

Hyderabad FC are bottom of the league by some distance and yet to record a win this entire season. Chenthil Mohan / Focus Sports / ISL

Two years ago, Hyderabad FC - then in only their third season - won the Indian Super League after a dramatic penalty shootout in the final. It heralded great things for the club and, indeed, the next year they finished second in the league and qualified for the knockouts, losing in the semis. The dream was still alive.

Today, the dream lies in tatters. A transfer ban imposed on them by FIFA in November 2022, because of unpaid salary dues to former player Nestor Gordillo, was the start of a series of circumstances that has left them in a precarious position: Most of their key players have left, staff have not been paid for months, nor have vendors, who are threatening to abort services, and club staff have raised banners during matches to make their voices heard. The club currently have 25 players registered in their ISL squad, but only seven of them had played in the ISL before this season.

And Hyderabad FC are, at the time of writing, bottom of the league by some distance and yet to record a win this entire season.

Club owner Varun Tripuraneni acknowledges there are "major concerns" in what he calls a "disappointing season" but says they are "on track" to address the issues.

"We did not expect this after three very good seasons and a Championship in 2022," Tripuraneni told ESPN. "With the changes [in playing personnel], we knew it was going to be a challenging season but we were still confident at the start. There have been a number of challenges off the field, which are known, and the priority has been to address these major concerns and we are on track."

ESPN spoke to several people closely involved with the club (some have left in the recent past) to piece together the club's issues and the work being done to resolve them. In some cases, names have been withheld to protect their identities.

The start: pending salary payments

The problems began in the run-up to the 2023-24 season, a former Hyderabad FC employee says. Players and staff weren't paid for three months; he claims that by the time a month's dues were cleared, two more months had passed. He is currently owed five months of pay from the club, having discontinued his association with the club.

This person claims players and staff were briefed by a number of people from the club management, but not by Tripuraneni. They were given multiple assurances of certain amounts being paid by certain dates, but none of that materialised.

The failure to clear dues affected Hyderabad severely, with a second transfer ban imposed in November 2023, less than a year after the first. The Times of India reported that the second ban was due to their failure to pay Bartholomew Ogbeche his full salary, even though he had left the club at the end of the 2022-23 season.

"We are on track to get the payments on track. We are very close to achieving this," Tripuraneni told ESPN this week. "There are some members of the staff and players who have left and their interests are equally important as other members of the club from our perspective."

The player exodus

Eventually, this impacted the playing staff: Oswaldo Alanis was the first to leave, which a club source says was to retire. He was followed by Felipe Amorim and then Jonathan Moya, who wanted to return to his homeland. Joe Knowles and Petteri Pennanen too terminated their contracts with the club and, by the time the ISL resumed for the second phase post the AFC Asian Cup in late January, club captain Joao Victor was the only remaining foreigner on their books.

A host of established Indians also left: Nikhil Poojary and Chinglensana Singh went to Bengaluru FC, Sahil Tavora went to Punjab FC, Hitesh Sharma to Odisha FC, while Nim Dorjee Tamang and Mohammed Yasir ended up at FC Goa. Yasir and Tavora are currently out on loan, but the AIFF allowed the other four players to terminate their contracts with Hyderabad to sign long-term contracts at their new clubs.

Those who remain are youngsters, who however now have an opportunity to make a name for themselves. But the lack of established players has led to some surreal on-field scenes: in their most recent match against East Bengal, Hyderabad fielded 10 Indians, of whom only three (Gurmeet Singh, Makan Winkle Chothe and Abdul Rabeeh) had played ISL football before this season.

The club's official website tells the story, though unintentionally, through its match-report headlines: "HFC youngsters get first taste of ISL football"; "Young Hyderabad aim to impress in Kolkata"; "Courageous performance from an all-Indian side at Salt Lake"; "Three HFC youngsters make ISL debuts at Salt Lake"; "Young Hyderabad gunning to take on East Bengal".

Some of the youngsters, particularly Rabeeh and Mark Zothanpuia, have been impressive. Hyderabad stretched East Bengal and Mohun Bagan Super Giant in the Super Cup, and have had encouraging periods of play in all their ISL matches in the last month. However, they've lacked the know-how and decisiveness you need in the crucial moments that decide games. There are some clearly talented players in this squad, but sometimes, there really is no substitute for experience.

"We have had to let go of players as well due to these [financial] reasons," Tripuraneni said. "I was very sad to let them go but it is what it is. We made every possible effort to keep them but it was beyond our control."

Neither Tripuraneni nor the club made those sentiments public. He said the non-communication was due to these being "sensitive issues" in "testing times" but the silence was jarring, especially in a time when clubs make it a point to farewell departing players on their social media channels. And even more so because Chinglensana, Poojary, Tavora, Hitesh, Tamang and Yasir -- among those who left -- were part of the ISL title-winning squad two years ago.

Operational issues

The precarious financial situation affected routine, everyday things as well, with the operations team having to bear the brunt of the situation.

It impacted their travel logistics, with the club having to make bookings for away trips at the last minute, as opposed to the regular mode of planning well in advance.

On two different trips to Bhubaneswar, the players and staff had to endure haphazard -- and ultimately exhausting -- travel arrangements. The first one was for their "home" match against Mohun Bagan on December 2, which was relocated to Bhubaneswar due to elections in Hyderabad.

It is generally a norm (not a rule) in the ISL that teams travel to the venue two days before the match, have a training session the day before the match, and then play. The Hyderabad contingent, though, was booked on to a flight for the night before the match -- a less-than-ideal situation made worse by flight delays.

Eventually, players and staff had to go back to their homes and return to the airport the next morning. So, with barely any sleep and then a couple of hours in the air on the morning of the game, Hyderabad faced Bagan. It was a surprise they held their own for as long as they did, eventually losing 2-0 to late goals. A club source, though, claims that the tickets were booked in a night flight according to the coaching staff's plan as players had trained in Hyderabad during the day, as no training grounds were made available to the club in Bhubaneswar.

Two weeks later, they traveled to Bhubaneswar for the away match against Odisha FC. By then, ESPN understands, they were booked into a lower-star hotel. The club source says this was due to a lack of availability of hotels in Bhubaneswar due to a medical conference happening in the city on the same day. The day after the match, when staff were to leave Odisha, they didn't have their flight tickets with them until three hours before takeoff. "We contemplated booking a train from Bhubaneswar to Hyderabad," the former staffer told ESPN.

ISL teams had the schedule for the first half of the season from the end of August onwards. For bookings for the month of December to not have been made well in advance, when air tickets would've been cheaper as well, speaks to the extent of issues the club faced at the time.

Tripuraneni acknowledges the operational issues caused by the dire internal situation but says he's confident of a return to operational normalcy very soon.

Even basics such as testing floodlights and maintaining the pitch at the GMC Balayogi Athletic Stadium has been a challenge for the club, with the Times of India recently reporting that unpaid vendors had refused to cooperate with the club. They have, however, played three home games this month without much event.

Injuries pile up

Apart from being an operational nightmare off the field, Hyderabad are also facing problems with their medical staff. The team that was in place originally has now left the club and a new team is in place. However, recent injuries to Manoj Mohammed (at the Super Cup), Aaren D'Silva and Alex Saji (who has since returned to the playing squad) -- who, ESPN understands, didn't train in the buildup to the Super Cup -- could have been avoided with load management.

Tripuraneni, while acknowledging the various issues, stresses on the club's achievements. The club, he says, should be credited for bringing the venue to the standards it has right now and speaks of investments in the floodlights, the dressing rooms and the pitch with a long-term vision for the club. "We will continue this journey once we get through these short-term challenges," he asserted.

For the young players, and for the ones still seeking their due payments from the club, it is imperative that Hyderabad FC find a way out of the hole that they find themselves in.