THE ASIAN CLUB COMPETITIONS of 2019 will see India sending two clubs - Minerva Punjab FC and Chennaiyin FC - who have never played in Asia before.
Minerva Punjab FC, who became the Champions of India by winning the I-League, the top division football league of India, will participate in the qualifiers of the AFC Champions League, the highest club competition in the continent.
With ISL getting provisional recognition from the Asian Football Confederation as the 'national knockout cup' of India, Chennaiyin FC, winner of ISL 2017-18, will participate in the qualifiers for AFC Cup, the second tier club competition of Asia.
Minerva Punjab FC will attempt to become the first ever Indian club to enter the AFC Champions League group stage in the modern format of the tournament. They will play their preliminary round knockout match against Iranian club Saipa FC on 12th February, away from home. If they manage to win, they will face Al-Rayyan FC from Qatar in the playoff round on 19th February, another away-from-home fixture. A victory there will guarantee them a place in the ACL group stage. They will find a place in the Group B, along with Al-Ittihad from Saudi Arabia, Al-Wahda from United Arab Emirates and Lokomotiv Tashkent from Uzbekistan.
If they fail to qualify for the ACL group stage, they will play in the AFC Cup group stage instead, being placed in the Group E.
All home matches of Minerva Punjab FC at the Asian stage will be held at TransStadia in Ahmedabad.
So far only one Indian club has managed to win an ACL qualifier match in the modern format. In 2016, Mohun Bagan beat Tampines Rovers to set that record.
While a spot in AFC Cup Group E is a guaranteed fail-safe option for Minerva Punjab, for Chennaiyin FC the place still has to be earned.
On 20th and 27th February, Sri Lanka's Colombo FC and Bhutan's Transport United will face each other in a home-and-away clash in the AFC Cup Preliminary round. The winner will face Chennaiyin FC in the Playoff round on 6th and 13rd March, another home-and-away fixture. The winner will progress to the AFC Cup Group E.
Since 2017, the AFC has separated the South Asian zone in a single group in the AFC Cup, from where only one club can progress to the knockout rounds. This has come as a major detriment, since before this two Indian clubs had the chance to progress from two different groups, as was the case in 2016 when Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC both played in the AFC Cup knockout stage.
AFC has also lumped India in with the West Asian countries in the AFC Champions League, which has led to the I-League champions facing tougher opponents in ACL qualifiers.
Both these rule changes make it seem like AFC are sandboxing South Asian, especially Indian clubs in order to minimize the number of clubs that can progress to the higher levels of those tournaments.
While the system is rigged against us, the only solution is to earn extra AFC slots for Indian football, which is possible if Indian clubs consistently perform well in the Asian stage.
Both Minerva Punjab and Chennaiyin FC will look to have an impact in the continental level like Bengaluru FC had back in 2016 when they became the first Indian club to reach the AFC Cup final.