The AIFF was supposed to send three teams to AFC tournaments this season, but as things stand, only two of them might make the cut. Even though the completion of I-League season could have solved the problem and given us the missing piece in the puzzle, AIFF called off the Indian Football season.
Indian football has largely hit the correct notes off-late, but even a single mistake can create a rippling effect in a country that has kept the game in darkness for years. Calling off the Indian football season (owing to the Covid-19 pandemic) without giving any clarity on numerous issues is one such mistake which might be the root of many problems that will rise over the next few years for Indian club football.
Full marks to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) for moulding the Indian Super League (ISL) as the saviour of the game in this part of the world, but now comes the next step – establishing a foothold in Asia. The governing body, in consultation with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), promoted the ISL as the top-tier league and dismantled the erstwhile I-League which was a debatable decision but it was justified with the roadmap India had in place. Going by the plan which is one that promises holistic development, AIFF has to strictly abide by it. But, according to the recent developments, they are failing to keep up with their own expectations.
The AIFF and the AFC agreed that three teams from India would qualify for the Continental tournaments, namely the AFC Champions League and the AFC Cup. While it was decided that the league toppers in the ISL would be awarded a group stage spot, the two AFC Cup spots would be allocated to the winner of the ISL and the I-League. FC Goa have sealed the AFC Champions League spot by finishing at the top of the ISL league table.
Now, comes the most interesting part. By merit, ATK being the winner of the ISL gets one of the AFC Cup spots, while Mohun Bagan, claiming the I-League, gets the other. Off all odds, it was in January this year that Mohun Bagan joined hands with ATK to form a single entity that would feature in the ISL from the next season.
Then who gets the remaining AFC Cup spot?
Even if we strictly follow the standings, East Bengal is at the second position in the league table with 23 points from 16 matches, tied with Punjab FC, but the former has a superior goal difference. Fourth-placed Real Kashmir FC have accumulated 22 points with a game in hand. So, technically, each of three teams have a chance to finish at the second position and possibly qualify for the AFC Cup. But, the AIFF have not only been reluctant to come for a solution but they also split the remaining prize money amongst the remaining 10 teams without awarding positions – an easy escape route indeed.
One of the many directives issued by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) stated that no I-League teams would be relegated this season. Furthermore, the 2nd division I-League might follow a different path altogether. As per reports, the AIFF executive committee and the AFC are set to venture into possibilities of staging a truncated second-tier league next season to promote teams to the 2020-21 I-League season. Well, that has its own set of problems and complications.
Yes, Mohun Bagan leaves a void in the I-League which makes way for another team, keeping the shape intact. But East Bengal, another team which is seeking a safe passage to the Indian Super League, might also leave the I-League soon. That leaves the I-League with 10 teams once again, with an 11th spot to be filled. What can AIFF possibly do then? Promote yet another team?
If the AIFF is planning on a cut-short 2nd division I-League to resolve the issues, why not do the same for the I-League? It will have two positive impacts – first, Indian football will get its third continental entrant for the season, and second, a team would be relegated in the normal course of events, keeping the competitive nature in place. Meanwhile, another team would be simultaneously promoted based on its merit – to be decided by the 2nd division I-League. Overall, the normalcy in the football hierarchy in Indian football remains in order.
How does this hamper Indian football?
The AFC ranks its member associations based on the points collected by their teams in continental tournaments (AFC Champions League and the AFC Cup). As things stand, India is going to lose an opportunity to climb up the ladder if they field a team less in the upcoming season. In 2019, India was placed at the 15th position as per the AFC Club Competition Rankings with two teams in the Asian circuit. This year, in spite of having provisions for three teams to qualify, the AIFF still has no clarity on whether a third team would be sent from India. Fewer teams would technically mean fewer points and subsequently a weaker rating in Asia.
That’s not all. India’s long term plan of having a proper three-tier league system will take a huge blow as well. The constant juggling between teams from the I-League to the 2nd division and vice-versa without any proper reason is creating a disorganized domestic structure that might hamper the progress of Indian. Previously, when the ISL was not in existence, the AIFF would give complimentary entry to teams to fill up spots in the I-League caused by defunct teams. But can India afford to do this now?
Indian football is apparently following a road-map and aims to create a robust domestic structure in a few years with a two-tier league system running parallel. From the 2022-23 season, performance-based relegation and promotion will be in place while the final structure (one main league, one knock-out cup tournament and tier systems) would be implemented from the 2024-25 season. To make it a possibility, the AIFF must stop making hasty decisions that makes no sense. Not only does it give an unfair picture of where things stand in Indian football but also hinders its progress.