When All India Football Federation officials, the clubs representatives from the I League and the India Super League landed in Kuala Lumpur to understand the roadmap for a unified league that had been finalised by the Asian Football Confederation, none of them were expecting any drastic change of direction for Indian football.

The AIFF only recently decided to honour the provisions of the Master Rights Agreement with IMG-Reliance by making the Indian Super League the top league of the country from the next season. However, the writing was on the wall since last year when representatives of AFC and Fifa suggested a five-year plan to create a one-league structure by the end of the 2019-20 season.

According to the earlier plan, the two leagues should have merged by 2019-20 and the new entity should have had at least 16 teams by 2022-23 with relegation and promotion to be implemented for the bottom two teams from the top tier.

The report, which was submitted by Alex Philips of AFC and Fifa representative Nic Coward, had also suggested that the ISL contract giving teams immunity from relegation for 10 years should be reviewed.

The report had further suggested that the I-League champions be added to the ISL from the 2019-20 season and that even the ISL teams should stop paying franchise fees once the relegation system was implemented.

There isn’t a big difference between the new roadmap and the plan Philips and Coward proposed two years ago.

Also Read: What are the takeaways from Indian football’s new roadmap

The major change is that under the new guidelines, the I-League champions won’t have to pay any franchise fee to join the ISL from 2022-23 season. But they will not get money from the central revenue till the final league structure is not implemented.

The other important point is that with the proposed structure, the ISL will not have to review the immunity of relegation clause in their contracts with the clubs as the relegation and promotion system will only come into existence after the ISL completes 10 years, in the 2024-25 season.

Similarities/differences in the two roadmaps

Year Roadmap suggested by Philips and Coward Roadmap finalised by AFC and AIFF
Year 1 (2019-2020) Launch of unified system with 12 teams with ISL being the top tier. Two new teams to be added – either top two I-League teams from last season or one I-League team and another from open tender.

No city exclusivity to apply in any tier.
ISL becomes the No 1 league and gets AFC Champions League spot. I-League gets an AFC Cup spot.
Year 2 (2020-21) Two additional teams to be added through the same mechanism as suggested above. Two clubs from the I-League to be offered entry into the ISL by the end of the season. No relegation and promotion.
Year 3 (2021-22) Tier 1 to expand to 16 teams either through sporting pathway (I-League performance) or open tender.

Relegation and promotion to start at the end of the season. If only one team is added to the top tier, relegation and promotion can start a year later. For this, the ISL contract with franchisees may have to be reworked as under the current contract, they have a 10-year immunity.
No relegation and promotion in the ISL.

League format (name of league, number of teams, etc) to be decided by AIFF for implementation .

Year 4 (2022-23) League transaction committee and AIFF to carry out a comprehensive review in 2022-23 season to introduce any changes from the 2024-25 season. Winner of the I-League to be promoted to the ISL without a franchise fee. No central revenue share for these teams. No relegation and promotion.
Year 5 (2023-24) The above system with 16 teams to continue. Winner of the I-League to be promoted to the ISL without a franchise fee. No central revenue share for these teams. No relegation and promotion.
Year 6 (2024-25) The final structure to be decided according to the review. One main league and one knock-out cup tournament. Relegation and promotion to be implemented.

Teething troubles

But those who have been involved in Indian football or have followed the sport and the functioning of the AIFF from close quarters over the last few decades will tell you it is very hard to predict how things will actually pan out.

Making plans is rather easy, but implementing them has never been the AIFF’s forte.

The first real challenge to the plan will come next year when the ISL will have to offer entry to two I-League clubs. The two clubs most likely to be first offered these spots will be two Kolkata giants – Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.

Despite all the criticism about their style of functioning, the two legacy clubs have the biggest support base in the country and Football Sports Development Limited, the company that runs the ISL, has been trying to bring them into the fold for a long time.

In fact, the ISL was looking to add two teams this season itself, to accommodate Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, but refrained from issuing a tender since the talks with the two clubs failed.

It is also a known fact that such an attempt was made even earlier. Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC had come on board two years ago but nothing materialised as the two clubs made it clear that they wanted the franchise fee to be waived off.

With the I-League champions being offered a direct spot in the ISL from 2022-23, it would be interesting to see whether even these clubs would want to shell out the big bucks to enter the fray two years earlier or adopt a wait and watch policy.

The money issue

If Mohun Bagan and East Bengal decide that they want a free entry into the ISL, FSDL would have to invite other clubs to join the ISL and at present, there doesn’t seem to be much choice among the existing I-League clubs as most of them are struggling to stay afloat.

The yearly expense of an I-League club is around Rs 5 crore. On the other hand, the franchise fee in the ISL ranges from Rs 12-18 crore and even if the organisers give a hefty discount, the amount won’t be easy for I-League clubs to cough up.

Then, there will be the case of clubs that qualify to become a part of the ISL by virtue of winning the I-League, not fulfilling the criteria of eligibility laid down by FSDL, which covers everything from basic facilities, quality of coaches, grassroot development and AFC Club licencing formalities.

It will also be interesting to see how the existing ISL clubs find ways to sustain themselves as most of them are already bleeding money. Over the years, the central revenue share paid to these clubs has steadily increased and should cover more than their franchise fee from the coming season.

Even then the losses have continued to mount. That, in turn, led to Delhi Dynamos shifting base to Bhubaneshwar and re-christening the team to Odisha FC. There could be a few more teams that may find it difficult to sustain or maintain the same level of investment.

The challenges notwithstanding, there is no doubt that this decision by the AFC and the AIFF will help Indian football move forward, and this sentiment was echoed even by some of the I-League club owners soon after the meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

But the success of the new roadmap will come down to how AIFF and its marketing partner, FSDL, implement the plan. Two years from now, they are expected to finalise the name of the new league and the number of teams, and if Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are not on board by then, making a foolproof plan will be a daunting task.

Now that the AFC has given clear directives and not suggestions like in the past, the ball is in the AIFF and FSDL’s half. The question is whether they will score a winner or an own goal.