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AFC-backed report proposes unified league for India

Bengaluru FC's Sunil Chhetri in action against Neroca FC in the Super Cup quarterfinal
Bengaluru FC's Sunil Chhetri in action against Neroca FC in the Super Cup quarterfinal

A unified domestic Indian football league with promotion and relegation to replace the concurrent Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League is the key recommendation made by consultants appointed by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in a confidential report. The report also proposes an incremental expansion to a minimum of 16 teams by 2022-23. The All India Football Federation (AIFF), which received the recommendations this February, faces exclusion from AFC club competitions like the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup if they fail to comply with the recommendations.

What is the current two-league system?

India has had concurrent leagues running since the 2014-15 season, wherein the I-League is still retained as the top division, with reigning champions Minerva Punjab set to represent India at the AFC Champions League playoffs in 2019. ISL champions Chennaiyin FC are guaranteed a spot in the 2019 AFC Cup, though it was understood to be an exemption made only for a season.

How and why did this report come about?

A suggestion to look into a roadmap for Indian football is part of AFC's brief of improving the standards of domestic football across AFC nations. According to sources, this came about after the poor showing by all four AFC representatives in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil -- Australia, Japan, Iran and South Korea all finished last in their respective groups. The report was compiled by Alex Phillips, Head of Asia-Europe Affairs, AFC, and former Premier League general secretary Nic Coward, a professional consultant for FIFA. Their brief was to establish a "widely-supported, robust, Medium-/Long-Term' roadmap for the sustainable development of Indian Club Football." They reviewed AIFF's existing strategy, interviewed key stakeholders in Indian football, researched the impact of ISL and reviewed different scenarios to compile the report.

What are the recommendations?

What are AIFF's options? 

An Indian football insider believes these suggestions will have to be implemented "sooner or later", as all domestic leagues have to fall in line with AFC statutes. Article 7 of the AFC statutes, insists that participation in any domestic league has to be "principally on sporting merit", and that any club can continue to participate in any division of the league only on the basis of promotion or relegation. The threat of being de-recognised and barred from AFC competition would mean these changes could come into effect either next season or the one after at the latest, according to the insider.

How viable are the changes?

An official in the know of ISL workings believes there could be considerable resistance within to these changes. The instability among club ownership patterns and growing disillusionment among some members about ISL's revenue model mean the clubs are thinking short-term, and are unlikely to agree to a long-term structure overhaul. The official believes there's a likelihood that Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), the IMG-Reliance subsidy that runs the ISL and I-League, might not respond to the report for the moment, concentrating entirely on the AFC Asian Cup in January and the national team's preparations in the lead-up to the same. They might close the ISL out from promotion and relegation altogether, the official added.

ISL's city-exclusivity has meant two teams from the same city haven't been able to compete in the league.
ISL's city-exclusivity has meant two teams from the same city haven't been able to compete in the league.

What's the response?

The AIFF has officially said that they have not received any communication from the AFC. AFC are yet to respond to a few questions about the report posed to them, while UEFA, where one of the co-writers of the report works, have declined to comment to on the report for "confidentiality reasons" and asked that all questions be directed at the AIFF.

What's the next step likely to be?

While AFC has shown flexibility on club licensing, league structure and other issues with Indian football in the past, "there is a limit for everything" and they (India) will have to comply with practices around the world. "There have been no discussions yet, and the important thing will be to decide on the merger of the two leagues. How long do they [FSDL] want the league to run and with how many teams," the insider said.

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