By Samindra Kunti
May 30 – In a confidential report the Asian Football Confederation, the AFC, has recommended a unified domestic Indian football league to replace the concurrent Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) and Indian clubs face exclusion from the continental club competitions if they don’t comply with the recommendations.
Ever since the ISL was established in 2013, loyalties in Indian football have been split between the old I-league and the new brash Bollywood league, modelled after the Indian Premier League in cricket. In this fractured landscape, the I-league is retained as a top-league, even though interest levels and revenue is limited.
The reigning I-league champions Minerva, headed by eccentric owner Ranjit Bajaj, will represent India in the Asian Champions League playoffs in 2019. They finished top of the league on 35 points, holding off Neroca and Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan, to cap off another fairytale I-league season. In the previous edition Aizawl from India’s Northeast, had crafted an unprecedented league run to surprise all the established clubs.
The current ISL champions Chennaiyin FC have been guaranteed a spot in the 2019 AFC Cup, the Asian equivalent of the Europa League. That spot is however an exemption and may only last for one season.
The AFC’s report sets out a medium to long term roadmap for the Indian game, having reviewed the existing structures and strategies in the local game. The recommendation of the AFC leaves the AIFF in a tricky position. Article 7 of the AFC statures notes that that participation in any domestic league has to be “principally on sporting merit”, and that any club can continue to participate in any division of the league only on the basis of promotion or relegation.
The ISL is bankrolled by one of India’s richest families, the Ambanis. They have also infiltrated the AIFF and hold great sway in the federation’s decision-making process. With the looming danger of exclusion from AFC club competitions, the AIFF will have to position itself carefully and alter the licensing requirements. The franchise-based ISL works without promotion and relegations, an AFC requirement. Within ISL circles, there is no desire to open up the league.
For years, there has been talk of merging the leagues in India. The AFC may now compel India to finally do so.
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