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Indian Super League winner to qualify directly for AFC Champions League

Indian Super League team scarves prior to an AFC Asian Cup match between India and Bahrain on January 14, 2019 in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)

The winner of India’s top football league will qualify directly for the Asian Football Confederation Champions League group stage for the first time from 2021.

The All Indian Football Federation said qualification would be conferred on the winner of the Indian Super League, which was made the country’s top league earlier this year, taking over from the I-League. The winner of the I-League will qualify directly for the group stage of the AFC’s second-tier continental competition the AFC Cup from 2021.

The Hindustan Times reported that the Champions League qualifier will be the team that finishes top of the ISL league stage, not the team that wins the annual playoffs final. The 2019-20 season winner will qualify for the 2021 Champions League.

No Indian team has qualified for the AFC Champions League group stage since its current format was introduced in 2002-03. Currently, the I-League winner enters the second of three preliminary rounds. The direct qualification of Indian teams has been made possible by the expansion of the Champions League from 32 to 40 teams in 2021.

The winner of the ISL previously qualified for the second of two preliminary rounds for the AFC Cup. The I-League winner got direct entry to the AFC Cup group stage if they were knocked out of the Champions League preliminary round. If an I-League team had ever qualified for the Champions League group stage, it would have been replaced in the AFC Cup group stage by a ‘standby’ I-League team.

From 2021, India will retain two qualifying spots for the AFC Cup – one group stage spot and one preliminary round spot. It has not yet been announced which Indian league will contribute the preliminary round team.