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AFC roadmap makes ISL India’s top league, recommends merger with I-League

Attendees at the AFC meeting in Kuala Lumpur to present a roadmap for the future of Indian club football, 14 October 2019. (Image credit: AFC)

The Asian Football Confederation has backed making the Indian Super League the country’s top football league from 2019-20, and a process to merge the I-League into it by 2024-25.

The two competitions have vied for the position of India’s top league since the Indian Super League was launched by sports marketing joint-venture IMG-Reliance in 2014. The I-League can trace its origins to 1996, when it began life as the National Football League before being rebranded in 2007.

In the last few years, Indian football officials have tried to hammer out the relationship between the two leagues, and decide which gets qualification spots for the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup continental competitions.

At a presentation at AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, attended by the two leagues, clubs and the All India Football Federation, a roadmap was presented to merge the two leagues over the next six years. The ISL will become the top division from 2019-20, and its winner will qualify for the AFC Champions League (ACL) preliminary round. The winner of the I-League will qualify for the second-tier AFC Cup. Until last season, the winner of the I-League had India’s sole ACL qualification spot.

The switch of the ACL qualification to the ISL was proposed in a 2017 Fifa/AFC report and endorsed earlier this year by the AIFF. I-League clubs vowed to fight the change.

The AFC roadmap also proposes increasing the number of teams in the top division by promoting some teams from the I-League. It also proposes eventually introducing promotion and relegation between the top and second divisions.

Fox Sports reports that the six-year roadmap includes the following milestones:

  • By the end of 2020-21, two teams from the I-League will have been offered entry into the ISL.
  • In 2022-23 and 2023-24, the winner of the I-League will be promoted to the ISL, so long as they satisfy criteria around their facilities and club licensing.
  • From 2024-25, the AIFF will be organising only one league and one knock-out cup competition, and promotion and relegation will begin between the ISL and the division below it, formerly known as the I-League.

Commenting on the proposal, AFC general secretary Dato’ Windsor John said: “Everyone has to put the good of Indian football at the forefront and take the best decisions to develop Indian club football. The AFC will be very much involved to ensure the growth of the game to the next level with the pathway to a single league.

“Every point of this package – and it is a package – has been thought out extremely carefully and it is aimed simply at providing the best chance to develop Indian club football. We have informed AIFF that 10-12 teams are not enough for the top league – it must be bigger.

“Everyone has contributed to the development of the Indian club game – ISL, I-League clubs, the AIFF and the AFC – and I am sure that if this roadmap is considered further, then Indian football will see the benefits for the game. We are now all working together to deliver the best future.”

AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said: “We now have a roadmap which provides the best opportunity for Indian club football. I would like to thank the AFC – and its General Secretary – for their contribution in proposing a solution to this unique problem. India is an important country for football in Asia.

“We have to be financially sustainable and take into consideration all commercial and contractual aspects of this plan because commerce is key to football not only in India but across the world of football. We must be cognisant of that fact of football life, that footballing legacy and investment are equally important for the development of Indian football.”

The 2019-20 season of the Indian Super League begins this Sunday, October 20. The I-League is due to start in November.