The Indian men’s 2022-’23 football season will draw to a close with the Super Cup which will run from 8-25 April in Kerala. But apart from the Super Cup, three other playoff matches have been scheduled in April and May for India’s spots in the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup.
If you are wondering what those playoff matches are for, here’s an explainer:
Which clubs are competing in the playoffs?
Currently, five clubs have been confirmed to play in the playoff matches.
In the AFC Champions League playoff match, the ISL League Shield winners of the previous two seasons, Jamshedpur FC and Mumbai City FC will play for a spot in the group stage of the 2023-’24 AFC Champions League.
The two teams will contest in a one-off match on April 4 at the Payyanad Stadium in Manjeri.
Later, 2021-’22 I-League champions Gokulam Kerala will play the winner of the 2023 Super Cup in the playoff match for a place in the AFC Cup group stage. That match has been scheduled for April 29 with a venue to be decided.
ISL champions for the previous two seasons, Hyderabad FC and ATK Mohun Bagan (Or Super Giants from here on) will feature in the one-off match for a place in the AFC Cup qualifying playoff. That match will be held on May 3.
Why are the qualifiers being played?
The Asian Football Confederation decided to change the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup calendar from an intra-year calendar to an inter-year calendar similar to the one used by Uefa for their European club competitions.
Earlier, the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup seasons would run from April to November. But under the new schedule, the 2023-24 season will see both competitions start in August and end in May.
To implement the new schedule, the 2022 AFC Champions League calendar was tweaked with the group stage matches being played in April 2022 and the knockout phase running from February to May of 2023.
As the Indian men’s football season follows a winter calendar, the winners of the two leagues in March would play in their respective continental competitions in April of the same year.
With the Indian Super League and the I-League running from October to March, the Indian men’s football season would run simultaneously with the AFC club competition calendar from the 2023-’24 seasons.
What happened last time around?
The 2021-’22 AFC Champions League season saw Mumbai City FC, winners of the 2020-’21 ISL League Shield, qualify for the group stage. Gokulam Kerala, as the winners of the 2020-’21 I-League, qualified for the AFC Cup group stage while ATK Mohun Bagan, the runners-up in the ISL made it to the AFC Cup qualifiers.
While the 2022 AFC Cup followed its regular calendar last season, the 2022 AFC Champions League will end only in May 2023. That meant that Jamshedpur FC, the 2021-’22 ISL League Shield winners, I-League winners Gokulam Kerala and 2021-’22 ISL champions Hyderabad FC were unable to compete in Asia.
The AIFF therefore decided to hold one-off playoff matches for the three AFC club competition spots reserved for Indian clubs.
Are there more permutations and combinations?
Since all five clubs who will play in the playoffs are also competing in the Super Cup, there is a possibility that one of the playoff matches would not be required to be played.
Scenario one: If JFC or MCFC win Super Cup
If the winner of the playoff match between Jamshedpur and Mumbai, who will earn a spot in the group stage of Champions League, also end up winning the Super Cup, then Gokulam Kerala will qualify directly for the AFC Cup group stage.
Scenario two: Gokulam Kerala wins the Super Cup
If Gokulam Kerala wins the the Super Cup, they will directly qualify for the AFC Cup group stage.
Scenario three: HFC or MBSG win Super Cup
Hyderabad FC and MBSG are already in contention for making it to the AFC Cup qualification stage.
However, if either team wins the Super Cup, and then beats Gokulam Kerala in the subsequent playoff, that team will take a direct AFC Cup group stage berth. If that is the case, then match between HFC and MBSG will not be required as the team that did not win the Super Cup will take the AFC Cup qualification spot.
At the same time, if either HFC or MBSG win the Super Cup but lose to Gokulam Kerala, they will face each other in the one-off match for the AFC Cup qualifier.
For example, if Hyderabad win the Super Cup and beat Gokulam Kerala, they will qualify for the AFC Cup group stage while MBSG will automatically qualify for the AFC Cup Qualifying. However, if Hyderabad lose the play-off to GKFC, they will play MBSG in their scheduled play-off for the AFC Cup qualifying round.