On May 17, the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) laid out its draft for the future of Indian football, including a three-tier league and a new knockout tournament. The plan has raised several questions - here they are, with the answers.
What happened on May 17?
The AlFF and their marketing partners IMG-Reliance met in Delhi with all stakeholders of Indian football -- Indian Super League (ISL) franchises, I-League clubs, national team captain Sunil Chhetri, former captain Bhaichung Bhutia, sections of the media -- and rolled out a proposal to create a three-tier system for Indian football. Under this, the existing ISL would stay as the top division, with a possibility of adding further teams to the existing eight. What is now the I-League would be renamed League 1, and what is now the League 2 would effectively be the third division. Both the lower divisions will have a system of relegation and promotion of teams, while the ISL will be immune from relegation, as per the ten-year contracts signed with them at the time of the creation of ISL. There is also a proposal to share the television rights money with the ISL teams, something which has been their demand since the inception of the ISL.
How does this impact the existing Indian clubs?
I-League is the recognised national league of India, and the winners of the I-League and the Federation Cup are invited to compete in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League and Cup. What IMG-R have proposed is a 16-team event called the Super Cup to replace the Federation Cup. The 16 teams will include the top eight of the ISL and the remaining eight teams will be determined after playoffs between the remaining ISL teams with the top four teams of the proposed League 1 and those from League 2. The top two teams from the Super Cup could also be eligible to compete in Asia, provided the AFC agree to extend the number of Indian slots in Asian competitions from two to four. So pending AFC's agreement and subsequent wins in the proposed Super Cup, this will close all windows of opportunity for non-ISL teams to play in Asia.
What about the players?
A proposal like this would be good for Indian players, especially those in the ISL. It would also entail a wider pool of players playing in lower divisions. But active footballers believe that this system will only work if ISL teams start selecting Indian players based on their I-League performance. What it will also mean is that unlike in the first two seasons, ISL players will no longer be able to play for I-League clubs.
What else is being planned?
There is a suggestion that the Nehru Cup might be revived for the national team, but this time with teams with a FIFA ranking between 120 and 150. The Nehru Cup was revived after a near-decade absence in 2007 and the last edition was played in Delhi in 2012, with India beating a representational Cameroonian side for their third successive title triumph.
What happens next?
The proposals have been shared with all those who attended the meeting for their feedback. The initial opposition has come from the existing clubs in the I-League, who fear that their role in Indian football might become irrelevant. As a former Indian international told ESPN.in, it could also mean that players in lower rungs will find it difficult to impress the national team selectors.
What are the potential roadblocks?
The first step for AIFF and IMG-Reliance will be to get the agreement of all stakeholders. This might be an uphill task, considering the I-League clubs have some reservations about getting fewer chances to compete in Asia. Besides, the proposals will have no weightage till ISL franchises agree to comply with AFC licensing criteria, which they are not required to do at present.
Why have the AIFF gone in for this?
It could be purely because having two leagues within a nation's football calendar is neither common, nor recommended. Besides the fact that it makes schedules far too cramped for a physically demanding sport like football, it also leaves top players far too tired to give their best when they are released on international duty. The second aspect of it could also be that the ISL franchises get very little return on investment with a league that runs for just three months and hence are keen on greater visibility through the year.
How will it be decided who is in the top tier?
This is exactly like the previous point -- in all probability, there is a talk of Bengaluru FC and either one of Mohun Bagan or East Bengal joining the existing eight ISL clubs. Since there is no relegation, the only hope for teams to join the ISL in future would be a planned expansion in the number of teams.
Do the non-ISL clubs have an alternative?
Since there is a potential conflict of interests between the ISL clubs and the I-League clubs, the latter might not get a lot of sympathy from the AIFF, in which case they might have to take the case to higher authorities such as the AFC or even FIFA. However, at the moment, it looks unlikely that they will give their consent to these proposals to be pushed through.
Is there a precedent globally for a league where there are no relegations and promotions?
Not to the best of our knowledge.