Defending champions Minerva Punjab FC forfeited their I-League match against Real Kashmir FC in Srinagar after the All India Football Federation (AIFF) turned down their request to relocate the fixture in the aftermath of the Pulwama terrorist attacks. The match was scheduled for Sunday and Minerva said its foreign players have been advised by their respective countries' embassies to pull out. "...we regret to inform you that this is not a risk that we are ready to take hence we shall not be travelling to the turbulent region," the Punjab club said in its letter to the AIFF.
Minerva also said that it did not receive the security assurances it had sought from the AIFF following the attack on Thursday which led to the death of 40 CRPF personnel. It is being termed as the deadliest terrorist strike in three decades in Jammu and Kashmir.
"Considering the extraordinary circumstances following the Pulwama attack just 20Km from Srinagar Airport, the Ministry of Home affairs need to approve the football match being held. If the CRPF convoys are not safe, then we are very soft targets for such attacks," the club stated.
"We had asked for written assurance and permission from Ministry of Home Affairs which we still haven't got from your or Home team's end. Please note that our foreign players have already received Travel Advisory Warnings from their respective embassies asking them not to travel to Srinagar till further notice," it added.
Minerva once again urged the AIFF "to delay the match for at least a fortnight till situation in the valley is settled."
"...alternately we are ready to play in Delhi, Chandigarh or any other neutral venue," the club said.
Earlier, I-League CEO Sunando Dhar said local security authorities in Srinagar gave the go-ahead to hold the match at the TRC Ground. He said the AIFF was assured of all the necessary security arrangements for the players and officials by the local authorities.
"Our officials are already in Srinagar in preparation of the match. I have spoken to the match commissioner and he told me that the situation in Srinagar is currently normal. The local security in-charge of the match has also assured full security to the players, officials and all those related to the match," Dhar told PTI on Saturday.
"We have been assured that the whole security bandobast of players' transport from the airport to the team hotel and for travelling from the team hotel to the ground and return on match day will all be provided. So we have decided to go ahead with the match," he added.
But Minerva said that the arrangements mentioned by the AIFF "are routine" for any visiting team. Minerva owner Ranjit Bajaj said his side decided to forfeit the match due to security concerns and as a mark of respect for the slain CRPF Jawans.
"We are not going to play the match, we will forfeit it. We have decided it and I have no second thought in doing that," he said.
Real Kashmir will get all the three points. The league debutants will be on 35 points from 17 matches. Leaders Chennai City FC (34 points from 16 matches) will play against Shillong Lajong on Sunday. "The AIFF wants to portray that the situation in Srinagar is normal but it is not normal there," Bajaj said. Third-placed East Bengal (31 points from 15 matches), who are scheduled to play against Real Kashmir on February 28, have also got in touch with the AIFF after the attack, expressing similar security concerns.