At a meeting between the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and the top minds of the All India Football Association (AIFF) in Kuala Lumpur, on Monday, it was decided that two clubs from the I-League would be offered an entry into the Indian Super League (ISL) by the end of 2020-21 season.
The meeting, which saw the future roadmap of Indian football being formulated, decided that clubs from both the leagues would be consolidated into one league by the 2024-25 season and a system of promotion and relegation would be implemented as well.
For the time being, other than offering the ISL berths to two clubs, the AFC and AIFF officials also announced that the winners of the 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons of the I-League will be allowed to take part in the cash-rich league from the next respective years.
These confirmations come after a hefty battle between the I-League clubs and the AIFF, involving FIFA. Eight I-League clubs, namely East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Aizawl FC, Chennai City FC, Churchill Brothers, Gokulam Kerala, Minerva Punjab, and Neroca FC had joined forces in February to demand a unified league in the country.
Writing a letter to the AIFF president Praful Patel, the representatives of the I-League clubs had proposed a unified league with promotion and relegation with immediate effect. They further demanded that the unified league be run by AIFF and not the Football Sports Development Ltd (FSDL), their commercial and marketing partners.
However, Patel had declined their demand and said the I-League-ISL merger would be impossible to conduct from the 2019-20 season. “The whole thing is being looked at in a narrow way. You have an ISL, they have a certain financial structure and the I-League has a different structure. You are talking about integrating it, but how will you integrate a club which is spending ₹2 crore a year with one which is spending ₹40 crore,” Patel was quoted as saying to Sportstar.
Their action followed several media reports which stated that contractual implications from the organizers could force the country’s football governing body to declare the ISL as the top-tier football league of the country. Though it has not taken place yet, in June, AIFF announced that from the next season India’s official AFC Champions League qualifier slot would be given to the winner of the franchise-based league, effectively making it country’s premier league.
This had further enraged the I-League who wrote a letter to FIFA chief Gerogio Infantino in July asking for his intervention to “save Indian football” before deciding to go for legal action. The global governing body then responded by seeking to know the roadmap ahead for Indian football, to which AIFF had replied by saying they were looking into the possibility of a unified league and that a window of two-three years would be required for the same.
The latest decisions to come out from Monday’s meeting indicate that AIFF have started moving towards their goal of a unified league within another two-three years. Now it remains to be seen how the I-League clubs react to the latest developments given their demand for a single league from this season was not met.
Also, the I-League clubs which will play in ISL in 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons will not receive a share of the central revenue which is distributed among the franchises.