Subtly hinting at a change of status quo in Indian football, All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel underlined they ‘do not want to pack up I-League’ but said he will take up the issue of its recognition with the Asian Football Council (AFC) soon.
The I-League has been a recognised AFC competition since it was re-branded and relaunched in 2008. However, after meeting the representatives of I-League clubs here on Wednesday, Patel said AFC’s recognition for I-League is necessary so that can co-exist with the Indian Super League (ISL). Patel has proposed that the two leagues run parallel for next two-three years till a solution is found with respect to the domestic structure.
The AIFF, in its agreement with commercial partners IMG-Reliance signed in 2010, gave them the right to start a new tournament and replace it with the I-League. The AIFF and IMG-R were ready to pull the trigger during the former’s executive committee meeting, which was originally scheduled for Wednesday. According to reports, the stage was set in the meeting to make ISL the country’s premier league – with no promotion or relegation – and reduce I-League to a defacto second division championship.
However, after the I-League clubs opposed the move and threatened to take AIFF to court, the federation postponed the executive committee meeting to July 9. Instead, Patel met the clubs to ‘hear their problems’. “We don’t want to pack up I-League. (But) We can’t have two leagues… the AFC also will not allow that,” Patel said. “A structured solution can be found in the next two-three years that will be acceptable to all… If the clubs accept our suggestion, I will consult the AFC so that I-League co-exists with its fullest recognition and is an AFC product.”
Till recently, the scenario was reverse. ISL was vying for AFC’s recognition while the AIFF granted I-League the status of India’s premier club competition by awarding its winner an AFC Champions League qualifier spot. In 2017, when ISL finally got AFC’s nod, the tournament’s champions were rewarded with an AFC Cup berth.
Since both leagues ran simultaneously, the continental championships are seen as a source of hierarchy demarcation between the two. Because of the prestige associated with AFC Champions League, the league that gets its spot is considered to be the ‘premier’ competition. However, that is only symbolic since no Indian club has qualified for the Champions League. In fact, this year was the first time since 2012 that Indian sides failed to reach the knockout round of the AFC Cup, a second-tier tournament.
Patel dismissed the allotment of continental berth as a minor issue. “That is a smaller issue that is being blown out of proportion. The real issue is both leagues should be recognised,” he said. “Suppose AFC does not agree, then it will be a problem.”
The AIFF chief said has given I-League clubs time till Thursday to get back over this proposal. “I have to consult our commercial partners as well because they have rights as per our agreement. The clubs have some issues regarding scheduling and broadcast. It must be resolved. Within these three years, I hope we find some solution,” Patel said.