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Praful Patel hints at unified league after three-year transition period

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel on Monday said that the Indian Super League (ISL) will have to introduce promotion and relegation at some point as per AFC regulations, and hinted at a possible merger of the ISL and the I-League following a three-year transition period.

"AFC (Asian Football Confederation) won't accept a closed league for long. It is the reason why I have proposed a three-year status quo for both leagues to run simultaneously despite AFC not willing to allow it," Patel told Times of India. "I would request the I-League clubs to strengthen themselves financially and otherwise in this period. So when the merging and integration happens according to AFC regulations, they would be in a better position. Ideal state would be when a second division club plays in ISL."

The AIFF's executive committee on July 9 had decided to recommend the coveted AFC Champions League slot  to the ISL champions, making the franchise-based league the top division of Indian football at the expense of the I-League. This decision came on the back of Patel's meeting with representatives of the I-League clubs, who reiterated their demand to retain the AFC Champions League slot. The other continental slot from India, for the AFC Cup, had been given to the ISL winners from the 2017-18 season onwards. The I-League clubs have also expressed dissatisfaction over being effectively relegated to playing in a second division, with no immediate hopes of being eligible to play in the ISL because of the latter's closed format and steep franchise fee.

While calling the Champions League slot "notional", Patel has said he is "fighting" to give I-League clubs a similar platform as the ISL. "The AIFF has proposed to show all I-League matches in high definition like ISL with proper timings," he said. "Half of the production cost would be borne by marketing partners [IMG-Reliance/FSDL] while the rest will be equally divided by AIFF and clubs."

Patel also said that the federation was "legally-bound" to honour the Master Rights Agreement (MRA) with their marketing partners, although ESPN understands that the I-League clubs are likely to challenge the legality of the same.

"Tomorrow, if FSDL doesn't pay us, they would be legally right to do so. But the AIFF operations and activities will suffer," said Patel. There have already been media reports over the past week of AIFF facing a cash crunch due to "non-payment of dues" from their commercial partners. Chennai City FC, the champions of I-League for 2018-19, received their prize money on June 27 -- over three months since their title triumph - while other clubs have reportedly not received their quarterly dues since January.

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