In a stunning development in Indian football, two-time champions Churchill Brothers were today thrown out of the I-League along with three other teams for failing to fulfill the AIFF's club licensing criteria.
The All India Football Federation's Club Licensing Committee - First Instance Body - took the decision after its meeting in New Delhi.
Two Kolkata clubs -- United SC and Mohammedan Sporting -- and Rangdajied United of Shillong were the other three teams which failed to clear the licensing criteria. All the four clubs will be out of the I-League for at least a year.
Interestingly, all the four clubs finished at the bottom four in the 13-team I-League (2013-14) which ended last month, with Mohammedan Sporting finishing last and Churchill 11th.
Under the AIFF's Club Licensing Regulations, the clubs are expected to meet several legal, administrative, sporting, infrastructure and financial criteria.
Licensing is an annual process where all clubs eligible to compete based on sporting merit need to have a License under the AIFF's Indian Club Licensing system. Last year, only Pune FC met the requirements with all other clubs being given a once in a lifetime one-year exemption.
Churchill had been one of the top club sides in the country in the last few years. They won the I-League title in 2008-09 and 2012-13 seasons and they are also the reigning Federation Cup champions. Churchill are also one of the few clubs to have played in the AFC Cup.
I-League Chief Executive Officer Sunando Dhar told PTI that the four clubs can come back in the I-League 2015-16 but through the second division league.
"These licensing criteria are on annual basis. They can come back in the 2015-16 season if they fulfil the criteria by then. But they will have to play in the I-League second division and qualify from there," Dhar said.
Bengaluru FC, Dempo SC, Pune FC, Salgaocar SC, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Sporting Clube de Goa, Mumbai FC, and Shillong Lajong FC were the nine clubs which passed the licensing criteria.
"Based on the documents provided by all the parties concerned and the Inspection conducted by the AIFF Inspection Team in the month of April/May, the Committee found that nine out of the 14 applicants have made the grade while four have failed," the AIFF said in a statement.
"Bengaluru FC, Dempo SC, Pune FC, Salgaocar SC, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Sporting Clube de Goa, Mumbai FC, and Shillong Lajong FC have successfully fulfilled the Licensing Criteria while United SC, Churchill Brothers, Mohammedan Sporting and Rangdajied United have not been up to the mark, thus bringing down the curtains on their participation in the forthcoming Football Season 2014/15 starting with the I-League in December."
Newly promoted Royal Wahingdoh of Shillong, who won the I-League second division, have been given an one-time exemption applicable for a year only to tick all the boxes.
"Wahingdoh have done exceptionally well in several departments of Club Licensing in such a short time since qualifying for the I-League," Committee Chairman Dr Girija Mungali said.
"They deserve a leeway being given to them under the Licensing regulations," he added.
Mumbai FC and Shillong Lajong though have been granted only the National License compared to their counterparts who have both National as well as the AFC Certificate.
The two clubs cannot take part in AFC competition and even if they win the I-League or the Federation Cup, they cannot participate in the AFC Cup or the AFC Champions League play-offs.
"Both these clubs do not have AFC A class Stadium, but were fully compliant of the infrastructure requirement for the National License," AIFF's Club Licensing Manager Roma Khanna stated.
Hailing the remarkable progress of the clubs since last year when the committee was formed for the first time, Dr Mungali said, "The nine clubs who have granted the License have come a long way since last year when only Pune FC passed.
"They have all passed with flying colours and it is a heartening sign for Indian Football. Clubs becoming professional is the best thing that can happen.
"They have taken Licensing very seriously and credit goes to AIFF. The Governing Body has played its role to perfection sensitising the issue s very diligently," the chairman added.
FIFA Regional Developmental Officer for South and Central Asia Shaji Prabhakaran, Advocate Ushanath Banerjee, Chartered Accountant Punkaj Jain and Dhar are the other members of the First Instance Body.
"The message has gone across that AIFF is very serious on licensing and I am glad at the progress of the clubs. We have conducted two to three seminars since the First Instance Body met for the first time and gave the clubs a year's exemption," Dhar said.
"We have been there to help the clubs at all time and we are committed to further aiding them in each and every department of Club Licensing. It's nice to see most of them responding so well," he added.