The All India Football Federation on Thursday did a U-turn, quite remarkable even by its own poor standards, when it allocated the third AFC Cup slot to Bengaluru FC.

The AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das had originally said that the slot would go to Chennaiyin FC, even before the Indian Super League final was played. Chennaiyin lost to ATK in the ISL final in March, but since ATK were merging with I-League champions Mohun Bagan who already had secured the AFC Cup group stage slot on virtue of being I-League champions, it was decided that ATK would vacate the AFC Cup playoff slot that they would win if they won the ISL final.

“I can’t understand why there should be confusion over the continental spots. We have made everything very clear,” Das had told the Times of India before the ISL final.

“There are three spots for three different competitions. If a spot is vacated by any club for whatever reason, the next best will be accommodated,” he had added.

Next best would mean Chennaiyin as they finished runners-up according to AIFF’s allocation of the AFC slots.

An AIFF statement released on March 10 read:

The slots for AFC Club competitions from 2021 onwards from India will be decided on the following criteria:

The winner of the Hero Indian Super League’s league phase gets a direct slot into the Asian Champions League.

The Hero I-League champion gets a direct slot in the AFC Cup as a special dispensation for three years.

The winner of the Hero Indian Super League’s play-offs gets a slot into the AFC Cup play-offs.

The same allocation of slots will be followed going forward.

But there’s a catch. AIFF and Das seemed to be completely unaware of the sporting criteria listed in Article 12.1 of Asian Football Confederation’s official entry manual for club competitions that governs how clubs qualify for continental competitions. It reads:

“To meet the sporting criteria, a club must have earned one (1) of the following (which shall be utilised in descending order for seeding purposes for any draw):

12.1.1. winner of the national top division league;

12.1.2. winner of the national knock-out cup;

12.1.3. runner-up of the national top division league;

12.1.4. third-place of the national top division league.”

The problem here is that ISL is not a proper league. It follows a league and knockout stage format. But AIFF had decided to award the winners of the league phase of the ISL — FC Goa — the direct entry into the AFC Champions League group stage. So, the league phase of the ISL was identified as the national top division league by the AIFF and ISL. The knockout phase didn’t come under consideration.

The I-League got the spot for the national cup competition after the AFC allowed it to run parallelly thanks to a special compensation. So the third additional slot that was granted to India after it received a direct entry into the AFC Champions League group stages, should go to the top division league that is the ISL group stage, according to AFC’s sporting criteria.

And if you go by it, Bengaluru FC should rightly get the slot as the third-placed team as ATK who were runners-up already had a slot due to their merger with Mohun Bagan. Das clarified it after announcing the slot would go to Bengaluru FC.

“The AFC has said that the playoff stage of ISL is secondary. They are considering ISL league stage as the top league. So, FC Goa take the Champions League place. For AFC Cup, the confirmed group stage slot will go to Mohun Bagan. But since they have merged with ATK, ATK-Bagan will play there,” Das told The Times of India.

“That leaves us with the final spot. ATK were runners-up of the ISL league stage but their tie-up (with Bagan) leaves the third spot (AFC Cup playoff) for the third-placed team which is Bengaluru FC. AFC had provided us the third spot as a special consideration. They are mostly concerned with the league,” he added.

It’s baffling how AIFF were unaware of these simple criteria and announced that the ISL winners would get the additional AFC Cup slot when AFC rules never permitted it. The merger of ATK and Mohun Bagan made the matter a bit complex but there is no excuse for a national body for being so reckless.

There have been previous cases of the slot been having to be transferred between clubs in Indian football.

In 2011, Salgaocar won both the I-League and Federation Cup. That year, AFC Cup group stage spots were reserved for both the winners. So, one of the slots was handed over to East Bengal who were runners-up in the I-League that season. Coincidentally, they were also the runners-up in the Federation Cup and that may have led to AIFF not stumbling upon the actual criteria of qualification in case a slot has to be passed on.

Despite the benefit of the doubt, it’s embarrassing for a federation (that aims to take the country to a World Cup in space of eight years) to have such poor organisation.

Why no slot for I-League runners-up?

The poor understanding of the criteria had also led to a belief amid the Indian football community that after the merger of ATK and Mohun Bagan, the Mariners would have to vacate their spot to the I-League runners-up.

However, since the runners-up of the “cup competition” are never passed on the winners’ slot if they already have a slot or are ineligible to take part in the AFC competition, there was never a question of the I-League runners-up getting the slot.

At the same time, it was also not a question of whether ATK and Mohun Bagan would get to choose between the two slots they had earned. Since Mohun Bagan were taken over by ATK, they don’t exist as a separate entity and hence their slot would have to be transferred to the ISL group stage runners-up. Since that team happened to be ATK, the ATK-Mohun Bagan combination would get the AFC Cup group stage slot that Bagan had to vacate. Thus, according to the criteria, the third and additional slot would go to the next placed team in the ISL group stage which is Bengaluru FC.

Chennaiyin would have felt hard done by AIFF’s decision to give Bengaluru FC the AFC Cup slot, but the truth was that they had no case. They were provided false hopes due to AIFF’s poor interpretation of the qualification criteria.

The more contentious matter in the AFC slot allocation was perhaps settled in 2019 when AIFF rushed to make ISL the top-tier league of Indian football. Legally, they were bound by Football Sports Development Limited’s contract that needed the Indian apex body to make the ISL the top tier of Indian football.

While the contract had been in place since 2010, the timing the AIFF used to obey it raises questions. A potential AFC Champions League group stage slot for the winners of its top-tier league was in the pipeline. According to the hierarchy then, it would have gone to the I-League.

Was it a mere coincidence that the AIFF faced pressure from FSDL to obey the contract and make ISL the top tier just months before the AFC Champions League group stage spot was going to be allocated to India?

However, that rests in the past and all stakeholders with or without the knowledge of a potential Champions League spot for India accepted it. Going ahead, the AIFF must be much more mindful of basic competition rules and criteria its clubs take part in and their own contractual obligations towards their partners. If not, despite a clear roadmap, Indian football’s future will be muddled with unnecessary controversies.