LAST EVENING, IN A TWIST that would feel right at home in a detective series, Bengaluru FC announced that they had won themselves a place in the AFC Cup qualifiers of 2021.
The news took almost everyone by surprise; especially the Chennaiyin FC faithfuls who were under the impression - for good reason - that it was their club who would get that coveted third continental spot.
Never before has something like this happened in Indian football; that an announced continental slot was subjected to a post-facto switcheroo of sorts. (Well, it has happened once before when top division league champions Churchill Brothers didn't get the AFC license and Pune FC were sent to the AFC Champions League Qualifiers in their stead, but that's a different circumstance.)
But now that it has happened, fans have been left scratching their heads over why it came to pass; and who is to blame for this. A lot of angry fans online are blaming anyone from money, politics, Bengaluru FC, AIFF to AFC themselves.
But were Chennaiyin FC really robbed of an Asian slot here? Or was it a giant confusion that never should have been created in the first place? Where does the buck stop?
The origins of this situation, no doubt, lie in the so-called "merger" of Mohun Bagan (the football team, not the club; the club has multiple sports contingents and the football team is just one of them) and ATK.
RPSG, the principal owners of ATK, have bought 80% stakes in the holding company that manages the Mohun Bagan football team. This means RPSG control the football rights of Mohun Bagan, and will bring the Green and Maroons into the ISL next season.
Now, while playing in ISL as of today depends on a franchise deal that's transferable from team to team (e.g. Pune City to Hyderabad FC), a place in Asia has to be earned by on-field performance. And before the confusions began, AIFF's allocation of Asian slots was pretty straightforward:
1) AFC Champions League group stage spot for ISL league stage winner
2) AFC Cup group stage spot for I-League champion
3) AFC Cup qualifiers spot for ISL playoffs winner
The issues arised only because Mohun Bagan became the I-League champions and ATK won the ISL playoffs. With the extraordinary circumstances regarding the "merger" of these two teams, AIFF tried to put out anticipatory solutions, and at every step they seemed confused how to go about it.
First off, there was a notion that Mohun Bagan would vacate their AFC Cup group stage spot and play in the AFC Cup qualifiers; which meant the group stage slot would go to the I-League runner up. In the AIFF inner circle this was understood to be the case for months leading up to March; which is why Star Sports commentator Anant Tyagi spelled it out to clarify the situation for everyone.
But to the surprise of him and many others, AIFF did a full 180 on that. Before the ISL final, it was announced that Mohun Bagan would stick to their AFC Cup group stage slot, rather than trading it for a lower qualifier slot. Whether this move was made to maintain the footballing continuity of Mohun Bagan, or because AIFF had realised that the I-League season would not be completed due to COVID-19 and there wouldn't be time to determine a runner-up, is anyone's guess. So, if ATK won the ISL playoffs, their continental slot would be vacated. And AIFF unequivocally asserted that this slot would move to ISL playoff finalist Chennaiyin FC.
AIFF General Secretaty Kushal Das cleared everything up in his comments to The Times of India,
"I can't understand why there should be confusion over the continental spots. We have made everything very clear. There are three spots for three different competitions. If a spot is vacated by any club for whatever reason, the next best will be accommodated."
There can't be room for doubt after a statement like that. But if you pay attention you'll notice something unusual.
'Three spots for three different competitions.' That's revealing. It meant that for the purposes of AFC slot allocation, the ISL league stage and ISL playoffs were being treated as two different competitions. If you think that's odd; welcome to Indian football. Literally everything about India's Asian slots this season is odd.
Let's jump back to 2019. It was a simpler time. People were free to walk around outside, breathing open polluted air instead of their own recycled breath through masks. Also, the Indian football pyramid looked a lot different.
I-League was the top division league. Below it was 2nd Division League. And from 2017 onwards, ISL was recognized by AFC as a national knockout cup, not a league.
But, something major was happening in Malaysia. To boost the popularity of Asian continental club football, the AFC was considering increasing the number of clubs in the main competition stage of AFC Champions League from 32 to 40. This expansion meant that the 7th to 10th ranked countries from both East and West Asia would get a direct entry to ACL group stage for the first time ever. Good news for India; they were ranked 8th in the West Region.
Under normal circumstances, this ACL group stage slot would go to the I-League champions. It was the top division league, and India broke into the top 10 rankings because of points earned from I-League clubs' performances in AFC Cup and AFC Champions League qualifiers. However, AIFF's commercial partners Football Sports Development Limited, who ran the ISL, weren't happy with that arrangement. So from early 2019, they began pressuring AIFF to switch the league pyramid. ISL had to be made the top league so it could take the ACL group stage spot for itself.
Which is what happened. In October 2019, a meeting in Kuala Lumpur put the seal of approval on the big switch: ISL was now the top league and I-League, now a de facto second tier, would have a continental slot for 3 years "as a special compensation," officially designated as the knockout cup to get around a two league conundrum.
The I-League clubs, who were until then ready to rebel against AIFF, were more or less welcoming of the decision because it also set a roadmap for introducing promotion-relegation in ISL; which was beneficial for the whole pyramid in the long run. They sacrificed their top division status, and a prestigious spot in Asia, for long term survival.
But unbeknownst to everybody, this is where the door to complications regarding Asian slot allocation first opened up.
Let's take a look at the 'Sporting Criteria' described in AFC's official entry manual for Asian club competitions. Article 12.1 says,
"To meet the sporting criteria, a club must have earned one (1) of the following (which shall be utilised in descending order for seeding purposes for any draw):
12.1.1. winner of the national top division league;
12.1.2. winner of the national knock-out cup;
12.1.3. runner-up of the national top division league;
12.1.4. third-place of the national top division league."
However, the same principal was applied with a little bit of variance in India's case. As Kushal Das said, there are "three spots for three different competitions."
Whereas ISL League Stage now had the designation of top league, and I-League was denoted as the 'Knockout Cup' (Despite its format being far from knockout), a slot for the ISL playoff winners was also instituted as part of the special provisional arrangement.
So the ISL playoff winner had a spot waiting for them in Asia. Had Chennaiyin FC managed to win, nobody could deny them their place in the AFC Cup Qualifiers. But they lost to ATK. And this is where things got further complicated.
Since Mohun Bagan were going to keep their AFC Cup group stage spot, it was ATK's spot that was going to be vacated. AIFF had "assured" Chennaiyin FC that win or lose, they were going to be in Asia; since they were the next best team in the "knockout cup." This, however, ran contrary to the AFC manual's rule 12.5,
"Where a club that meets the sporting criteria does not receive a license, the club which finished in the next highest position in the national top division league which is licensed shall replace it, subject to the operation of Articles 5.4 to 5.6 (for ACL) or Articles 7.1 to 7.3 (for ACC), read together with Article 12.6."
In plain English: since ATK were technically stepping out of the picture, their now-vacant spot was to go to the next best team in the top league; not the next best team in the knockout cup.
In the ISL league stage, the club that had the best finish after toppers FC Goa and now-absent ATK were Bengaluru FC. It's obvious that Chennaiyin FC were never eligible for a spot in this scenario.
Here's something funnier: since I-League have their Asian slot as a "special compensation" and not as the de facto top league, if Mohun Bagan had vacated their spot instead of ATK, it's very possible that that spot would also have gone to the next best team in the designated top league i.e. Bengaluru FC, and not to the I-League runner up.
As stated before; Asian slots are not transferable like ISL franchise spots. They have to be earned by a fixed order of on-field merit. And not even AIFF have the right to arbitrarily assign them to the club they please.
The question is, how could the AIFF top brass be so unaware of the situation and create this confusion by telling Chennaiyin FC they had a slot in the bag already before the final had even taken place. As a national federation with its own representatives in high places at the AFC, this is something that should have been clarified with the relevant authorities beforehand. Either AIFF failed to do that or they did, and somebody from AFC provided them with a wrong interpretation of the rules. Which scenario is worse is up for debate but what's for sure is this isn't exactly a job well done.
But why blame just AIFF; almost no one questioned this allocation of Asian slots. Only a few spotted the discrepency, but then took it as just another strange element in a system full of oddities. Except a certain Mandar Tamhane, the CEO of Bengaluru FC. Parth Jindal in a now-deleted tweet revealed that he too was surprised that Mr Tamhane had managed to pursue this thread to the highest level to practically snatch an Asian slot out of thin air.
The frustration that Chennaiyin FC fans feel is very understandable. After losing the ISL playoffs final, the Asian slot was their biggest takeaway from the 2019-20 season, and the thing they were looking forward to most in the next season. In football, everyone gets the short end of the stick sooner or later, which in Indian football can happen in more ways than anywhere else. Clubs like Pune FC, Royal Wahingdoh, Dempo, Salgaocar etc have all had a raw deal in the past; it's just Chennaiyin's turn to take the bitter pill. This perceived slight will without a doubt add further fuel to the fire of their rivalry with Bengaluru FC, which should make their next encounter must-see TV.
But what's the takeaway for Indian football from this bit of off-season drama? The answer perhaps lies in Kushal Das's latest comments to The Times of India,
"The AFC has said that the playoff stage of ISL is secondary. They are considering ISL league stage as the top league."
This should, for all participating clubs, be the guiding mantra for future seasons: the real championship of India lies in the ISL league stage; and despite having a bigger prize money, the playoffs don't carry the same weight as finishing at the top of the table.
In 2021, the ISL playoffs will have no representation in AFC Cup. Perhaps it's time to reconsider whether they should have any Asian slot in the future as well.
In the original roadmap prepared by AFC and FIFA for Indian club football, the Super Cup was seen as playing a major role as the main knockout tournament. It should, as the real follow-up to Federation Cup, have an Asian slot for the winners.
At the end, none of this would have been an issue if Indian football had a streamlined league system with promotion-relegation implemented at every tier. There would be no need for "mergers" between teams or the general jugglery of competition slots that led to this mess in the first place.