THE ASIAN FOOTBALL CONFEDERATION HAS expanded the AFC Champions League, the highest club competition in Asia, to include lower ranked nations including India.
Until now, the AFC Champions League, formerly known as the Asian Club Championship, comprised of 32 clubs from 12 nations; with the slots divided equally between countries in the East Region and West Region.
The long rumoured expansion will now hand an extra direct slot to the 7th to 10th ranked nation in each region; which includes India who in AFC MA rankings are currently 8th on the West Region.
A press release by AFC confirmed,
'Chairperson Dr Tran said: “This is in line with the expansion of the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 when we saw the improvement in standards and I am sure, that in club competitions, this move will have a similarly positive effect.”
The decision will enable clubs from more MAs to experience intense top-class club competitions and so providing more high-level development for players and coaches as well as increasing the financial benefits for the competing clubs.
The existing slots for the top six Member Associations will not change but there will be additional slots for the MAs ranked seven to 10 and there will be an extra group of four in both the West and East zones from the 2021 season.'
This essentially means that the winner of the league stage of Indian Super League, which was handed the spot of the top league of Indian football from this season onwards, will get a direct entry into the group stages of AFC Champions League, not having to go through the qualifiers unlike the previous champions of India.
Indian clubs have had a long history in the Asian championship; beginning with the second edition in 1969 (it was called Asian Champion Club Tournament back then), when the Mysore State team finished fourth in the competition which remains the best performance by an Indian side in the competition.
Following this Indian clubs made regular appearances in the competition; with Mohun Bagan appearing 5 times, East Bengal & Salgaocar 2 times each. Churchill Brothers & JCT also made one appearance each.
After the competition was re-branded as AFC Champions League, the number of slots were reduced and India along with other non-elite footballing nations no longer got a direct entry into the group stages; a move that drew criticism from many quarters.
Since then Indian clubs have mostly competed in the AFC Cup, the second tier club championship of Asia. (The only club to have a win in the AFC Champions League Qualfiers so far are Mohun Bagan) Here, multiple Indian clubs have excelled; with Mahindra United reaching quarter finals (2007), Dempo (2008) and East Bengal (2013) getting to the semi-finals and Bengaluru FC (2016) reaching the final.
These performances by I-League clubs in AFC Cup ensured India remained among the top 10 ranked member associations in the region; which has allowed ISL to benefit from this latest expansion of AFC Champions League.
The expansion of ACL will see the competion reaching a wider range of countries and potentially win over new fans for continental level football with multiple matches being held locally; re-capturing the reach it had before being re-branded into a smaller competition.
Having the entry into ACL on the line is expected to make the ISL's league stage - which lagged towards the end due to teams looking to qualify for top four instead of pushing for the top - more competitive.