The All India Football Federation along with key stakeholders of Indian football that include all the Indian Super League and I-League clubs are set to meet with the Asian Football Confederation officials in Kuala Lumpur on Monday.
The national federation, in consultation with the AFC, is expected to present a “roadmap” for the future of Indian club football as there is still no clarity regarding which league – out of I-League and ISL – will be the top tier competition in the country.
The marker for the same is the AFC Champions League slot that currently sits with the I-League, giving it the top-tier status in Indian football. The AFC Cup slot originally reserved for the cup competition currently goes to the ISL.
However, in June, the AIFF announced that the ISL would be granted India’s AFC Champions League qualifier slot from 2019-’20 season, effectively making it the top-tier football league.
The I-League clubs have protested the call, threatening to go to court if their relegation is enforced.
However, the I-League clubs may also have to settle for no Asian competition slot at all from next season as the AIFF is struggling to convince the AFC to grant the AFC Cup slot to the I-League that is not essentially a cup competition, according to a report in The Times of India, earlier this month.
“I don’t want to jump the gun just yet and will listen to what they (AFC) say tomorrow,” Minerva Punjab owner, Ranjit Bajaj told Scroll.in.
“But we have a lot of questions. If we are not getting the AFC Champions League slot which the AIFF said, will we get the AFC Cup slot? And if we do get, will the I-League have semi-finals and finals like the ISL? We are looking forward to getting many of our questions answered,” he added.
Bajaj expressed concern over the media reports that hinted that two more I-League teams, most likely, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will join the ISL from next season.
“It will not be right if you are determining the top tier of Indian football by money. And then, you are also picking the most prominent clubs in the I-League. And then if the AFC slot is taken away from us, everything will be against us,” he stated.
“We are hoping for the best from the AFC and we strongly believe in their policies and principles as long as AFC follows their own constitution. We are expecting a structured roadmap for the betterment of football in India,” Bajaj added.
Mohun Bagan secretary Debashish Dutta seemed to slightly differ from Bajaj on the AFC slot issue, but agreed with the Minera Punjab owner that they hope to get the right answers.
“The debate is not about the AFC Cup slot but about the AFC Champions League slot which is our (I-League’s) slot. We will wait and see who will get what slot. But if not the AFC Champions League slot, we will surely get the AFC Cup slot. It’s not that big a deal, to be honest,” Dutta told Scroll.in, before adding that he hopes AFC and Fifa who are the guardians of football in the world take the best possible call.
The ISL getting the Champions League slot and the top-tier status, seems to be just a formality. I-League clubs have never been given any assurances by the AIFF about getting the AFC Cup slot. If it has to be given to a cup competition, the Super Cup is likely to get the slot, leaving I-League without any continental slot, relegated as the second tier and with possibly no promotion or relegation at least for the next two years.
However, reports suggest that the AIFF is working on an arrangement to get that AFC Cup slot to the I-League.
No clarity on new I-League season
Unlike the ISL that has had its fixtures well in place for a while, there is no clarity over the start date, let alone the fixtures of the I-League season.
Several clubs have pressed ahead with the preparations for the new season, recruiting players and training them for the season, but the lack of any sort of clarity on the new season has left the clubs in a sticky situation.
“We are paying the salaries of the players without them even playing any major competition. It has become very hard for us to get sponsors. We don’t know when the league is starting, we don’t know which teams will be part of it, we don’t know whether we will be the top-tier or the second tier or whether we have the telecast. We are just sitting there waiting for answers. Hope we get it tomorrow,” Bajaj lamented.
The matter of the ISL slot
Even though it appears ISL will get the AFC Champions League qualifier slot, it remains to be seen which club earns that place. Sunil Chhetri and few other players had called for the slot to be given to the winners of the league stage after Bengaluru FC’s defeat in the 2018 ISL final.
The ISL league authorities have communicated to the AIFF that the 2021 AFC slot will go to the winners of the league stage and not eventual champions, according to a recent report in the Hindustan Times.
There has been no word from the AIFF on that matter and the meeting on Monday could also give us a verdict on that front.
(With PTI inputs)