In keeping with their announcement earlier this week, Minerva Punjab did not show up for their opening game of the Super Cup against FC Pune City in Bhubaneswar on Friday. Six other I-League clubs have also threatened to withdraw, and Churchill Brothers are understood to be unsure about participation. What does it mean for the Super Cup and what should fans expect from this tournament?
The rumours about plans to relegate I-League to the second division behind ISL had resulted in eight I-League clubs writing to the AIFF in February, hoping to meet AIFF president Praful Patel to discuss their future. Minerva owner Ranjit Bajaj says the reason for their no-show was simply in response to not having had that meeting.
"We are here in Bhubaneswar, and wanted to give them [AIFF] an opportunity till the last second. We said we are willing to play if they had met us 11 am this morning. All we want is time for a meeting, and we are willing to play without any pre-conditions and demands," Bajaj told ESPN.
Both Gokulam Kerala and Aizawl FC, who are slated to play their qualifiers on Saturday, have boycotted their pre-match press conferences. ESPN reached out to officials from both clubs, but received no reply. Aizawl, it is understood, have already communicated to AIFF about their non-participation.
AIFF secretary Kushal Das did not respond to ESPN's questions, but a senior official says that as per the Super Cup regulations, not turning up for a match would likely comprise a walkover. "The match is called off," the official said, but said the official verdict will have to wait. "We'll have to wait for the report from the match commissioner."
Among the teams that have been undecided about their position are I-League runners-up East Bengal, who on Wednesday sent two contradictory releases to the press. The first cited their "resolve to withdraw" from the Super Cup, while the second one sent just about an hour later, said they "have the tradition and legacy to not step back from participating", a message believed to have been sent through their sponsors.
A football insider says much could depend on how Patel approaches this impasse. "A relegated team [Churchill Brothers] was retained last year. The situation may change over the next 10 days," said the insider.
With no AFC slot on offer, the Super Cup had already become a tournament with little meaning. A mass withdrawal from I-League clubs threatens to take away all its remaining relevance.