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#TFGtake - AFC's new rules for Asian club football put India at a disadvantage to richer nations

THE AFC HAS ANNOUNCED a major overhaul in the Asian club competition formats that will see a new three tier system enter the continental football landscape.

For Indian football clubs, the implications are that they will still have 3 or 4 spots in Asian tournaments. But they may lose out on their direct slot to the AFC Champions League group stages. And there's a new regulation regarding foreign players that puts Indian clubs at a disadvantage to clubs from richer nations.

The ACL, which was expanded from 24 to 32 teams recently, allowed India to get a direct entry, which was allotted to the ISL league winners. But AFC will once again go back to a 24 team format for the Asian top tier, which means the Champions of India may once again have to play in the qualifiers to get to the ACL group stages.

AFC's media statement about the ACL elaborated on the return to the old format,

"The top tier will comprise 24 participating clubs in total, divided into 12 teams across the West and East regions competing in a league format. Each club will play four home and four away matches against eight different clubs within its region, with the top eight sides from both regions – 16 in total – advancing to the Round of 16 stage, which will be played in a home and away format. The eight winners of the Round of 16 will then advance to the Quarter Finals, which along with the Semi Finals and Final, will be played in single-leg ties at a centralised venue which will showcase the final stage of the AFC’s elite club football."

The second tier competition, which is currently called AFC Cup, will have 32 teams in the group stages. And a new third tier tournament, seemingly in the vein of the UEFA Conference League, will be introduced where 20 more clubs will play.

The exact number of spots allotted to India will largely depend on how India's representative in ACL 2023-24 and AFC Cup 2023-24 perform; since wins in the ACL are rare for Indian clubs and go a long way to add to the ranking points. About the slot allocations, AFC said,

"It has been approved that the Club Competitions Ranking to determine the Slot Allocation for the 2024/25 season onwards will be based on the performance of the MAs’ participating clubs from the previous eight years (with weighted value) to better reflect their historical performance. The MAs’ final points will be based on the performance average of all clubs in the AFC Club Competitions Group Stage onwards which will be applied retroactively for re-calculation of the MAs’ 2021 and 2022 points for the AFC Club Competitions Ranking 2022."

Another major decision taken by the AFC is changing the way foreign player registration quotas are implemented in Asian competitions. Instead of mentioning a fixed number, they have decided to go with whatever the national association's rules are for a particular club,

"In February 2022, the AFC Executive Committee had approved the recommendation to increase the foreign players quota in the Player Selection List from the existing 3+1 quota to 5+1 (five players of any nationality and one from an AFC MA), which will continue to apply to the 2023-24 season. In another breakthrough decision aimed at enhancing the quality and stature of the AFC Club Competitions, the Committee also agreed to recognise each MA’s domestic regulations on the foreign player registration and remove the foreign player registration quota from the 2024/25 season onwards."

This decision, which comes from a lobby within AFC that believes copying the UEFA Champions League would make ACL more commercially attractive, has basically put the ball in the national associaitons' court in terms of how many foreign player slots can be there in Asian leagues. It may pit countries against each other, and trigger an arms race of sorts where federations try to one-up each other by increasing the number of foreign players allowed in their domestic leagues in order to gain an upper hand in the Asian competitions.

For Indian football, the implications of this are not good. The ISL has seen an over-proliferation of foreing players in the past, which can sideline Indian players, especially in central midfield and attacking positions. This can in turn lead to a weaker national team.

The league has since significantly reduced the number of foreign players.

One may remember that back in February, when AFC first increased the number of foreign players allowed to be registered in ACL and AFC Cup, the AIFF opposed the decision.

The increased number of foreign players is likely to hand an extra advantage to richer and more developed footalling nations in the continent whereas clubs from developing countries like India will struggle to match the quality of foreign signings that clubs from Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Qatar can make.

It remains to be seen how AIFF react to the new foreing player regulations. There are stakeholders within Indian clubs who prefer to have more foreign players in the roster and AFC's new regulations may have given them a new reason to make their case.

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