The AIFF President Praful Patel has stressed on the need to gain recognition for the I-League from the continental body.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is all set to ask the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for permission to operate the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League simultaneously until at least 2022, its President Praful Patel reiterated on Wednesday.

At a meeting with representatives of the 10 I-League clubs, the AIFF head outlined plans to continue with both leagues parallelly for the next three seasons. This could be a contentious issue, especially because the AFC’s blueprint for the future of Indian football reportedly mandates a merged top league before 2020. 

Speaking following the meet Patel told reporters, “Tomorrow (in the future), we don’t want to pack up the I-League. It should continue. But, ultimately there should be a roadmap of Indian football. Two leagues cannot go on permanently. The AFC will also not allow it forever. It is just a solution for the time being.”

“There is a historical issue with Indian football, within that framework, I feel a reasonable two to three years window should be given for I-League also to be continuing. I cannot give you any assurance yet because I have to talk to the AFC. AFC also have to agree to what I am saying. It may be our wish but AFC will have to agree. Our commercial partners have to be consulted. At the end of the day, there are costs involved.’

He further added, “There are also rights which they got through the Master Rights Agreement which we had signed many years ago. Within that framework which is three years, I feel that the I-League also must co-exist with the fullest recognition of the AFC so that it is an AFC product.”

When asked about how both leagues will run simultaneously Patel said, “The schedule will be of six-seven months so the leagues will run parallel. The timing of games can always be changed. The I-League had some issues with the broadcast and matches being played early last season. All that can be resolved. I told them that we will try to resolve those issues.”

The agreement Patel is talking about was signed originally between AIFF and IMG-Reliance and is now legally binding between AIFF and Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), a subsidiary of IMG-Reliance. The agreement states that the ISL would be the “most senior and prestigious football league in India.” Another clause in the same agreement accord provides for the possibility that the existing league (I-League), could be “reconstituted, replaced or discontinued, either temporarily or permanently.” 

Now, with FSDL pushing the apex body to make good of their word and the I-League clubs fighting against likely going under, the AIFF has come to a decision for the well-being of all parties. If the permission is granted from the Asian governing body, the ISL and I-League will take place together, in essence seeing a continuation of the status quo.

When quizzed on which league will get the AFC Champions League qualifier spot, Patel reiterated, “Those are smaller issues, unnecessarily being blown out of proportion. The real issue is that we have to get both the leagues recognized together by the AFC. Suppose the AFC does not agree to our proposal, then that will be a problem. So, we have to get both the leagues recognized first. That is the real issue.”

It has been reported recently that the ISL will be granted the AFC Champions League qualifier spot after being recognized as the country’s top league. An AIFF executive committee meeting, which was initially scheduled for 3rd July, is now going to take place on 9th July, in all likelihood to ratify the move.

Commenting on the performances of the Indian clubs in AFC competitions Patel said, “Also on the Champions League and AFC Cup issue, tell me which Indian team has played the Champions League? So, that is what I am saying. This is a small issue.”

However, the I-League is apparently being granted the AFC Cup spot, which was originally intended for the winners of the national cup competition, aka the Super Cup or the Federation Cup in recent years. If that is the case, there’s some doubt about what the Super Cup will stand for, amidst reports it will take place as a pre-season tournament from next campaign onwards.

Referring to the I-League as the “league of the country” and the ISL as the “new entrant” the former union minister expressed the need to find a common roadmap for the sport in the country, so that “all the rivers flow into one larger entity.”

A lot of uncertainty still lies in the air when it comes to the future of Indian football and with the Intercontinental Cup all set to start from Sunday in Ahmedabad, the AIFF will want to resolve this persisting issue quickly.

As things stand, the ISL 2019-20 winners will play in the AFC Champions League 2020-21 Qualifiers, while the I-League winners will have to satisfy themselves with an AFC Cup 2019-20 Playoff spot.