The All India Football Federation made a mess of the AFC Cup slot allocation, a process that became much more complex than before after India were awarded a direct spot in the AFC Champions League group stage and also an extra spot to compete in the AFC Cup – Asia’s second-tier club competition.
After announcing Chennaiyin would get the additional AFC Cup spot, AIFF decided to hand it to Bengaluru FC after they were informed of their ignorance about AFC’s sporting criteria that gives preference to performance of teams in ISL’s league phase over the knockout stage.
Thus, from the next season, the league stage winners would directly qualify for the AFC Champions League group stage as FC Goa did this year and the runners-up would get a berth in the AFC Cup qualifiers even if they fail to land the big prize through the playoffs later on.
This scenario begs the question: What is the significance of the knockout stage or the playoffs in the ISL then?
The ISL has followed this system of a knockout stage following a league phase since its inception in 2014. But the ISL then was formed to serve an altogether different purpose.
From ‘booster dose’ to ‘real league’
The I-League was India’s official national league and the ISL was to be just a “booster dose” for football in India according to AIFF president Praful Patel. The way it was designed seemed very much in accordance with Patel’s words.
New, glitzy franchises much on the lines of global football were part of it. Some of the biggest names in football in the shape of Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires, Nicolas Anelka were to grace the competition with their presence and the coverage and promotion of the tournament was path-breaking.
It was just a two-month affair. The league and knockout format was to differentiate it from the usual I-League but it also an attempt to ape the success of the franchise-based Indian Premier League in cricket.
According to ESPN India, “The AIFF conducted a study more than ten years ago that concluded that Indian audiences would struggle to digest the concept of a league. It would leave them with a sense of an unfinished business as the audiences were used to cricket and other individual sports where the winner was often decided by a final after a series of knockout rounds.”
The format worked to an extent, as it caught the eye of the Indian audiences that would otherwise not consume Indian football. It also served as an additional income for the players, gave them exposure to some of the top players in the world and in turn also forced the I-League clubs to get their act together in terms of adding a bit more professionalism to their operations.
However, by the third season, financial difficulties of sustaining this glitzy model dawned on the ISL franchises and the league. From the following campaign, they decided to do away with the marquee player rule. Two more teams were added and the duration was increased to six months.
The ISL was run parallelly to the I-League with no overlapping players in 2017 and resembled more of a league than a mere booster dose. The league and knockout format though remained as it is.
Plans for a longer ISL
Fast forward to 2020, the ISL is now India’s top-tier national league having displaced the I-League from the helm. It has AFC recognition and the clubs have slowly started to transition from franchises to clubs, adopting a more long-term structure.
The ISL, that has not been averse to course correction, had plans to expand the season to a 27-game per team affair to meet the AFC criteria required for its clubs to play in its competitions from the 2020-21 season. But it has had to keep those plans on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the federation has sought exemption from AFC for another year to press ahead with those plans.
However, despite the new expanded league that will see every team play the other thrice in the league phase, the winners would be decided after the playoffs. With the purpose of the ISL as a booster dose served, is it time for the AIFF and Football Sports Development Limited to convert the ISL into a league-only competition in sync with the new place it holds in Indian football?
Indian audience accepts league-only format
The study that prompted AIFF to stay away from a league-only format in the first place might have become outdated itself. India, at that time, was still warming up to European football. But in 2020, one can safely say that Indians in large numbers have accepted football’s format of a league.
In fact, it was the popularity of European football in India that prompted the launch of the ISL on similar lines. Football fans would certainly accept the idea of a league only competition and so would potential new fans as seen in the Indians’ acceptance of the foreign leagues.
Countries like the US, Australia and Belgium do follow a format like that of the ISL but a league-only format for a country’s bread and butter competition has been the more successful model in global football.
No more AFC slot confusion?
The simple league format would also take away AIFF’s headache when it comes to allocation of AFC slots by simplifying the process. In the current format, the playoffs are played just for the prize money. The ISL crown in a case where teams outside the top two claim it would also seem to be titular without Asian football.
The only problem for the ISL to adopt a league only format at this stage is the lack of relegation. The absence of the knockout stage could make the league a drab affair as there would be nothing tangible to play for, especially if the title race doesn’t materialise.
The league will become open in 2025 with promotion and relegation and would also see the number of participants increase. The switch to a league-only format may happen then, but with the competition likely to be a 27-game per team affair from the 2021-22 season, the use of playoffs to decide the winner after such a long league campaign would seem quite out of place.