The All India Football Federation on Tuesday decided to recommend the winners of Indian Super League to play in the AFC Champions League qualifiers, virtually according ISL the status of the country's top tier competition.
The executive committee of the AIFF, which met in New Delhi, will recommend the Asian Football Confederation to "positively" consider its request to grant ISL's winning team the ACL qualifier slot.
The winning team of the I-League, the official top tier competition till date, has so far been playing in the qualifying round of the ACL—Asia's top tier club competition. I-League 2017-18 champions Minerva Punjab FC played in the ACL qualifying round this year.
Normally, the slots of continental top-tier competition across the world are given to the clubs playing in the national top division leagues.
Under the 'Entry Manual for AFC Club Competitions for 2017-2020', the ACL slots are distributed among teams of the member countries of Asia which plays in their respective national top division league.
"In the light of MRA as well as the fact that in the last 5 years the entire national squad are mostly being signed/playing for ISL clubs, and TV viewership and in-stadia audience having grown far more substantially vis-a-vis I-League, and ISL clubs complying with the entire AFC Club Licensing criteria, including strong grassroots, and youth development programmes which had also been certified by AFC, the AIFF Executive Committee recommends to the AFC to positively consider their request," the AIFF said in a statement.
The MRA was signed in 2010 between the AIFF and Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), which runs the the ISL. FSDL is a subsidiary of AIFF's commercial partners IMG-Reliance.
The ACL slot has been the bone of contention between the AIFF and six I-League clubs—Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Minerva Punjab, Churchill Brothers, Aizwal FC and Gokulam Kerala—which had said that giving ISL winners the ACL slot will demote the I-League to second tier competition.
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They have also pointed out that ISL is a "closed league" without promotion or demotion as is the case anywhere in the world.
In a meeting with these six I-League clubs on July 3, AIFF President Praful Patel had said he will approach the AFC to ensure that the status quo remains and both the league continue to co-exist for another 2-3 years.
The six I-League clubs accepted the AIFF's proposal to maintain the status quo but rejected the idea of ISL winners being given the ACL slot.
The matter even reached the doorsteps of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with the six I-League clubs requesting him to set up an enquiry commission and "probe the AIFF's functioning".
Reacting to the AIFF's decision to recommend ISL for the ACL slot, Minerva owner Ranjit Bajaj said that the clubs will go to court.
"We will be going to court," he said.
"This is a dark day for #IndianFootball #IleagueMurdered. So FSDL formed by RELIANCE to 'develop' football INDIA has managed to finally murder @ILeagueOfficial by making it the second tier league (in addition to 27 clubs shut down cuz of AIFF) the way to get in ISL-15 crores a year/sporting merit be damned," he tweeted.
Before the July 3 meeting, the six clubs had also said that they will approach the courts if the I-League is demoted to a second-tier competition.
The AIFF, however, appeared to be giving some room for negotiation as it said that it would request the AFC to send a delegation to India to discuss the football crisis.
"Further, as the issues of I-League, I-League clubs and future roadmap of Indian football including a unified League are important issues which need to be resolved in a time bound manner, the AIFF requests the AFC to send a high-level delegation led by Dato Windsor John, General Secretary, AFC at the earliest to discuss this issue with all stakeholders of Indian Football including our commercial partners FSDL to arrive at a fair solution," the AIFF said.
The AIFF said that the clubs had taken a "contrary stand", from the one taken on July 3, in the letter written to the Prime Minister.
"In the meeting ... held on July 3 ... some broad proposals were discussed, and a joint statement was issued by AIFF and the I-League clubs. These amicable discussions were to be presented to the AFC Executive Committee for further consideration.
"However, on July 8, 2019, the clubs via a letter released to the media have taken a contrary stand which is not in the spirit with which the AIFF President had met the clubs. As a result, we have therefore, asked the AFC to find a possible solution," the AIFF statement said.
It is learnt that the AIFF was not happy with the way things panned out after the July 3 meeting, especially the clubs writing to the prime minister. Officially though, the federation's stand was that "anybody can write to the PM as India is a vibrant democracy".