I-League to begin on November 16, status on AFC Cup slot still unclear

The I-League will begin on November 16, but there is still no clarity on whether the league will be broadcast or if the winner will get an AFC Cup slot.

Chennai City FC is the defending I-League champion.   -  S. Siva Saravanan

The upcoming season of the I-League will begin on November 16, senior sources in the All India Football Federation (AIFF) have confirmed to Sportstar. As reported earlier, the sixth edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) will begin on October 20.

The I-League was initially to begin on November 2, but the AIFF decided to push it to November 16, two days after India's FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifier against Afghanistan.

While the schedule is yet to be announced, there remains some uncertainty on whether the league will be telecast. Star Sports was the official broadcaster until last season, but received a lot of flak towards the second half of the league when it decided to selectively broadcast matches. In a meeting with the I-League clubs earlier, AIFF president Praful Patel had said the clubs could find their own broadcast partners, but there isn't a lot of clarity on the same.

- Status on continental berths still unclear -

The I-League was the nation's premier football league until last year, but in accordance with its Master Rights Agreement (MRA) with Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), a subsidiary of Reliance, the AIFF had announced ISL as the top division earlier this year. The AIFF had also indicated that by elevating the ISL to the top division, it would also award the AFC Champions League berth to the ISL winner.

As per the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) Club Competition guidelines, the AFC Champions League slot is awarded to the winner of the country's top division, while the AFC Cup slot goes to the winner of a knockout tournament. Until last season, the I-League was awarded the AFC Champions League slot, while the ISL, which was shown as a knockout tournament as it had a playoff to qualify for the final, had the AFC Cup slot.

As per the AFC's guidelines, only the winner of the country's top division (ISL in this case), or the winner of the national knockout competition (Super Cup in this case) can play in the AFC Champions League or AFC Cup. As it stands, I-League club can play in the AFC Cup only by winning the Super Cup and are no longer assured a continental berth.

 

But now, with the shuffling of the status of the leagues, it is unclear if the I-League will get the AFC Cup slot since it does not qualify as a knockout tournament. As per the AFC's guidelines, the AFC Cup slot will go to the winner of the Super Cup since it is the country's only knockout tournament at present.  In the event that an ISL club wins the Super Cup, then none of the I-League clubs will feature in either AFC competition.

However, the AIFF is certain on finding a solution for this dilemma. “Our idea is to have the AFC Champions League slot for the ISL. And we are trying to get the AFC Cup slot for the I-League,” the source said, while adding that a decision would be made before the commencement of the I-League.

Meanwhile, AFC officials in the know have said that a meeting on the same is scheduled for only in late November. "A meeting regarding the allocation of AFC berths and league functioning is scheduled for late November," they said.

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