It is not the greatest of times for being a sports fan around the world, but the football mad public in Kolkata have had one of the most memorable seasons. The past week has witnessed the crowning of Mohun Bagan as I-League champions with four games to spare in the tournament, while a rampaging ATK FC claimed an unprecedented third Indian Super League title triumph.
The latter secured the ISL title with a 3-1 victory over arch-rival Chennaiyin FC in a summit showdown that was played behind closed doors in Goa on Saturday.
Javier Hernandez (10th) and Edu Garcia (48th) put ATK in the driving seat but Nerijus Valskis (69th) reduced their advantage to set up a tense end to the contest.
Hernandez scored another in injury time (90+4th) to confirm a record third title.
While Kolkata might be rejoicing two titles, there is a question to be asked in the aftermath that might leave some stakeholders of Indian football uncomfortable.
In the days leading up to the two teams emerging champions, the All India Football Federation issued a clarification that many had been waiting for: what will happen to the three continental slots for Indian clubs?
The slots for AFC Club competitions from 2021 onwards from India will be decided on the following criteria:
The winner of the Indian Super League’s (Hero ISL) league phase (the team that finishes top of the table after the regular league phase) gets a direct slot into the Asian Champions League (AFC Champions League).
The I-League champion gets a direct slot in the AFC Cup as a special dispensation for three years.
The winner of the ISL trophy (ISL Champions) gets a slot into the AFC Cup play-offs.
The same allocation of slots will be followed going forward.
The above conditions seem fine given the roadmap for Indian football and how ISL has been promoted recently as India’s top division. But here’s the catch: Mohun Bagan and ATK’s impending merger ahead of the next season introduces ambiguity into the equation.
FC Goa will be heading to the AFC Champions League group stage, as ISL table-toppers. But the I-League and ISL Champions will be one entity next season, so who gets the AFC Cup group stage slot and who gets the playoff spot?
Clearly, the merged entity will opt to be a part of the group stage, leaving the spot assigned to ISL champions without a taker.
Here are some of the questions this scenario raises:
- Does the remaining AFC Cup playoff spot go to the second-placed team in I-League?
- As an extension, what happens if the I-League season is not completed due to the coronavirus outbreak? Currently East Bengal are in the second spot.
- Should it be assigned to the ISL runners-up since the league is India’s premier club competition now?
- Would it fair, then, for the ISL to have all three continental slots even though it was not designed to be the case?
So, even though the clarification was issued to make things clearer on the continental front, the merger has raised a question that the AIFF will have to address soon. Already, the I-League patrons have raised issues with reports that ISL could have all three slots.
It is worth noting that this is the first time that India has a direct AFCCL entry since the continental club competition started in 2002. Earlier, Indian clubs were drawn in the AFC Champions League playoffs but that will no longer be the case as India has been allotted a direct slot after the format expanded from 32 to 40 teams from 2021.
India additionally have two AFC quotas with the ISL winners earning a place in the preliminary round of the AFC Champions League and the I-League champions going through to the group stages of the AFC Cup.
Archive: What Mohun Bagan-ATK merger could hold for Indian football
Currently, Chennai City FC are the only team remaining in Asian contention, drawn in Group E of AFC Cup on the back of their I-League triumph last season. Bengaluru FC, the ISL champions, were knocked out in the playoffs.
What will be the scenario in 2021? At the moment, it is anybody’s guess.