Lack of clarity continues as ISL, I-League preseason begins with Durand Cup

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at the Durand Cup opener between Mohammedan Sporting Club and Mohun Bagan. PTI Photo

As East Bengal kicked off their centenary celebrations on August 1 and crosstown rivals Mohun Bagan began their Durand Cup campaign with a win a day later, a bigger story in Indian football is currently flying under the radar. It's that of the lack of clarity on how the upcoming 2019-20 season will pan out, now that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) have announced their intention to elevate the Indian Super League (ISL) to top-division status at the expense of the I-League.

ESPN seeks to answer some of the questions that Indian football fans might have as we dive into the pre-season preparations with the 16-team Durand Cup, which includes teams from both leagues.

When does the new season begin?

The dates for the start of the new season aren't out yet, and the ISL is not going to start before mid-September in any case, with India's 2022 World Cup qualifiers against Oman at home and Qatar away scheduled for September 5 and 10.

It is understood the ISL clubs are preparing for an early October start to their league, while the I-League clubs are still awaiting more clarity about their immediate future. Last year, the ISL began on September 29, with the fixtures announced on August 9.

How many teams in the ISL?

After six I-League clubs wrote to FIFA, the world's governing body sought an update from AIFF on July 25 about progress made on a 2018 report which had recommended a gradual increase in the number of teams in the ISL, beginning with 12 for the 2019-20 season.

An AIFF official confirmed to ESPN that there are no immediate plans of expanding the ISL from its current format of 10 teams. This also puts to rest rumours about Kolkata clubs East Bengal and Mohun Bagan joining Bengaluru FC as teams to shift from I-League to the ISL, something that has been discussed as a possibility over the last two years.

How have the teams been doing?

Bengaluru's top official Parth Jindal told ESPN earlier this year that every team in Indian football was facing financial difficulties, and that has been borne out by recent developments, especially among ISL clubs.

FC Pune City and Delhi Dynamos have been spoken of as the clubs in greatest strife, with the former reported to have been in talks with Mumbai City FC for a possible merger. The club's social media handle had to clarify in June that the club wasn't closing down, but did confirm that they were looking for a new home venue.

Delhi, meanwhile, have also reportedly been on the lookout for a new home venue, with Ahmedabad and Hyderabad discussed as potential destinations for the club.

What about the I-League teams?

Perhaps the biggest news over the last week centred around rumours of East Bengal's principal sponsors Quess wanting to part ways with the club, after just one full season together.

ESPN understands that the upcoming season will see Quess and East Bengal working together, but there are reports of Quess also wanting to associate with Bagan. The break with the existing club could then happen only after the 2019-20 season ends.

Former I-League champions Minerva Punjab have also announced a merger with Chandigarh-based Roundglass Sports, though this association is understood to be centred around grassroots development rather than top-level football.

The meetings with AIFF, and the letters to both AFC and FIFA, came from six of the I-League clubs -- Aizawl FC, Churchill Brothers, Gokulam Kerala, Minerva Punjab, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. One of the club owners confirmed that the clubs are likely to meet in New Delhi over the next week to decide their next course of action, with one telling ESPN, "Any action that we take has to be a united one, because we have been the torchbearers of Indian football for all these years."