THE 14TH OF OCTOBER, 2019 WAS a landmark date in the histoy of Indian football.
On that day, a meeting took place at the headquarters of the Asian Football Confederation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In attendance were all the major stakeholders of Indian football, including representatives from AIFF, their commercial partners FSDL, and from the clubs of I-League and ISL. And it was being chaired by none other than Dato Windsor John, the Secretary General of the AFC.
The occasion was one that was in the making for years. After AFC and FIFA had sent a team of experts to India to look at the existing football landscape, which was divided between I-League and ISL, the experts had produced a report that made many recommendations on how to solve this issue and create a unified league system for India.
Based on those, a roadmap was prepared by AFC and AIFF. And on this day, it was to be presented to the indian football clubs for the first time, to get their consensus so that it could be approved and forwarded for final approval.
An AFC press release described those key points thus:
• In season 2019-20, the ISL will attain the status of premier league competition in Indian football.
• The AFC will allow the winning ISL club to represent India in the AFC Champions League play-offs, and the I-League winner will get to play in the AFC Cup play-off.
• Another key recommendation by the AFC is to open a pathway for two I-League clubs’ entry into the ISL by the end of the 2020-21 season, subject to the criteria being fulfilled.
• In addition, starting with the 2022-23 and 2023-2024 season, the winner of the I-League will stand a chance to be promoted to the ISL with no participation fee, basis fulfilling sporting merit and the national club licensing criteria to be set out by the AIFF. There will be no relegation in the ISL at this time.
• In its recommendation for 2024-25, it is agreed to fully implement promotion and relegation into the top league, and abolition of two parallel leagues."
We now know that the roadmap presented in this meeting was finally approved by the AFC Executive Committee on 26th October 2019. And that step brought to an end years of uncertainty, and outright hostility between a group of I-League clubs and AIFF & FSDL, to an end. But that seismic change did not arrive in a smooth fashion.
The meeting on 14th October happened under circumstances that were volatile and emotionally charged. And it unfolded in a way that reflected that. There were arguments, accusations, debates. There was mistrust and resentment from events past. And it took some of the most experienced sports administrators in the continent all their patience and effort to steer it in the right direction.
Today, on the two year anniversary of this event, TFG has pieced together from multiple sources what happened behind closed doors inside the AFC House during that meeting.
While this is not a complete written account of the proceedings, it does deal with all the major topics that were brought to discussion. Most of the events described took place in a linear fashion, although certain queries and responses that happened at different times in the meeting have been put together to maintain topical cohesion.