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I-League, ISL re-structuring issue -- AFC is keeping its cards close to the chest

THE ASIAN FOOTBALL CONFEDERATION IS KEEPING its cards close to the chest when it comes to the restructuring of the Indian football league system.

With ISL kicking off in just over two weeks and I-League likely starting next month, no official announcement has yet come from the AFC about which league will have what stature in Indian domestic football and with regards to qualification slots for Asian competitions.

The AIFF has endorsed handing over the top division status to Indian Super League, taking it away from the I-League; snapping the lineage that began in 1996 with the maiden season of the National Football League.

This will effectively mean that the spot for the AFC Champions League Qualifiers, which was earned for India by the I-League clubs with their performances in the AFC Cup, will go to the ISL winners instead of the I-League champions.

After running as an unrecognized private tournament for 3 years, the ISL in 2017 was given a slot to the AFC Cup Qualifiers that's meant to go to the "national knockout cup"; originally reserved for the Federation Cup which the AIFF killed off after its 2017 edition, in favour of a new tournament Super Cup that didn't have any Asian slots. Now, the AIFF wants to transfer the same AFC Cup Qualifiers spot to the I-League; which is raising questions since I-League has traditionally been a pure league with promotion-relegation and no playoffs... something that's hard to classify as a "knockout cup."

Due to these complications there's yet to be a final decision. Although, according to AIFF officials, the AFC is ready to hand the top division league status over to ISL; and it's only the "knockout cup" status for I-League that's yet to be finalised.

When TFG reached out to AFC for comment on the process and a possible timeline on when a resolution is possible, the continental body responded with the following statement, 

"The AIFF’s request has been received. The AFC will now undertake the necessary internal process to review and present the proposal to the relevant body for a decision. The AFC is fully aware of the concerns of the various stakeholders for a quick and fair decision taking into consideration the interest of all parties."

If the AFC accepts the AIFF's proposal, world football will witness a remarkable switcheroo where a national top division league will overnight become the national cup tournament, and vice versa. Indian football will also make an official transition from the open league system comprising of I-League, 2nd Division League and various state leagues to having an singular isolated franchise-based competition ISL as the new top division.

In 2017, the AFC sent a team of experts to India to speak to various stakeholders including the federation, state associations and various clubs to determine the best course of action for Indian football to follow to resolve the current split-league situations. The resulting report, which TFG leaked in May 2018, recommends a transition to a unified league system with ISL as the top division but a system of promotion-relegation firmly in place. The visiting personnel also found there's overwhelming support among the stakeholders for having a unified league structure instead of continuing the current split system. But the AIFF and their commercial partners FSDL have neither officially released the report nor committed to implement its recommendations so far. The Federation officials have said there will be promotion-relegation in the future but so far no concrete step has been taken towards it, and there's no hard timeline in place to make it happen. The AIFF's current declared proposal only seeks to secure the top division status for ISL without committing to any mandated transition plan to open up the league system again.

On the evening of 3rd October, club owners of I-League and ISL received an invitation from the AIFF, asking them to confirm participation at a "presentation of roadmap" for the Indian football league system. The presentation in question will take place on 14th October, in Kuala Lumpur, in the presence of AFC officials. Whether this presents a proper balanced vision for the future taking everyone into account or not remains to be seen.

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