Football has retained its position in the hearts of Indians and especially within the Bengali community for being the first sport in which the Indians showed the British that they would not back out without a fight. In 1911, a barefooted team dubbing themselves Mohun Bagan went head-on against the English team and won. That was the beginning of the madness over the sport that is more than just a game. It became synonymous to success forged through struggle, blood, sweat and tears. 

Keywords: Indian Super League, FIFA, Asian Football Confederation, I-League, All-India Football Federation. 


The Indian National Football Team was founded around two and a half decades later in 1937. Since then, football has garnered unrivalled love for a sport. The popularity led to the foundation of league football in India and a career in sports finally became a serious option to consider. The All India Football Federation brought forward the National Football League, a two tier relegatory league structure in 1996. The league was renamed in the 2007-08 season as the I-League. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, signifying the two Bengals continued to be termed as the Indian Football Derby. 

Advent of Indian Soccer League

The Indian Soccer League, backed by IMG-Reliance is a franchise based football competition that was launched in 2014. The competition turned out to be the most popular format of football competition and also turned out to be a commercial success so big that it became hard to ignore. This encouraged the administration to file for being coined as a league. This is where the I-League sought to curb the spread of ISL and the infamous conflict began. The ISL, complete with its superior financial marketing and a superior brand value attracted foreign talent that the I-League had failed to garner. 

Interaction between the ISL and the Hero Motocorp I-League- How does it occur?

Indian Football

The tussle to gain the title of the biggest league championship of India versus the desire to retain the title of the same respectively led to a slew of meetings in 2016 and 2017 between the All India Football Federation, the Asian Football Confederation, the ISL management represented by FSDL (Football Sports Development Limited) and I-League to decide upon the hierarchy. During the meeting, the AFC made it clear that it desired the I-League to be regarded as the top tier league championship of Indian football.

This was primarily held on the grounds that although the ISL had greater presence foreign investment and public popularity, the tournament was held in a round-robin manner. In this light, the I-League had a proper league structure with a relegation procedure. 

With no concrete solution having materialised, the AIFF appealed to AFC that the organisation wished both the formats to run in parallel. The system devised would allow the I-League winner to participate in the AFC Champions League qualifiers. The AFC Cup qualifiers would be claimed by the ISL champions. Following this, the ISL roster of teams was increased from 8 teams to 10. The duration of the season was also increased to six months, stretching from October to December.

However, the format of the competition remained unchanged. The ISL follows a franchise based club tournament. The teams, in order to register must pay a franchise fee and there exists no system of promotion or relegation based on performance. 

Promotion and Relegation- Licensing requirements.

Indian Football

The difficulty of acknowledging ISL as a league is laid down in the provisions of the statutes of FIFA. The provisions laid down under Article 9.1 of the FIFA Statutes state that the eligibility for a club to be able to participate in the domestic league will be purely based on sporting merit. A club will earn the chance to participate in a domestic league championship by virtue of remaining at the same position or by virtue of promotion or relegation in the league. The AFC Statutes also resound a resemblance to this provision.

Article 9.2 of the FIFA Statutes lays down that along with the sporting merit, a club intending to play in the domestic championship has to fulfil other conditions that are required to obtain a license. The licensing procedure lays stress on the administrative, legal, infrastructural, and financial standards and is regulated and examined by the member association’s body of appeal. 

The AFC Club Licensing Regulations follows the above-mentioned strategy of approach and  under the provisions of Article 7.3 states that the club that has qualified must obtain a license under the National Licensing Regulations. 

These regulations are in stark contrast to ISL’s mechanism of round robin tournaments. ISL fails to meet the criteria on two grounds. Firstly, it can be argued that sporting merit in the case of ISL can be subject to decay owing to it being a franchise based system. Secondly, the tournament has no relegation system, meaning that it is a closed tournament which is in direct violation of Article 9.1 of the FIFA Statutes. 

Legality of closed leagues

Indian Football

The argument about the legality of a closed league is nothing new. Even after being enshrined in the statutes enacted by FIFA, various countries such as the United States of America and Australia follow a similar approach where their leagues have no relegation or promotion scheme. In this regard, the Miami FC and Kingston Stockade, clubs from USA moved the Court of Arbitration for Sport on this very question.

The subject of their complaint was that the Major League Soccer (MLS) was a closed league and had no promotion or relegation scheme which violated the conditions laid down in the FIFA statutes. In addition to this, it was claimed that CONCACAF, FIFA and the United States Soccer Federation had violated the Swiss Competition Laws and the Swiss Laws on associations when they failed to ensure that Article 9 of the FIFA Statute had been upheld.

The CAS panel decided that if the literal meaning of the Article were to be followed, then the MLS would be found guilty of not upholding the FIFA Statutes. However, the CAS stressed that the true meaning of the words enshrined under Article 9 had historic intentions and must thus be subjected to a more purposive interpretation. The CAS concluded that the provisions of Article 9 were intended to be binding on member associations who had already established the promotion or relegation scheme.

However, the Article was never meant to be mandatory in nature if the system in question did not exist already. This judgement serves as an important gust of fresh air to the IMG-Reliance backed ISL, at least until the 10-year non-relegation clause expires. 


Indian Football

The most logical way to resolve this problem would be to merge the two leagues into one, allowing for the fulfillment of the criteria for sporting merit, as well as all the clubs having the opportunity to participate for the qualifiers of AFC Championship and AFC Cup tournaments. However easy it may sound, the process would never happen owing to the fact that I-League and the ISL have their own constitutions, different methodologies to operate and ownership issues to name a few.

The AIFF, after much debating, stated in October 2019 that all the parties had agreed to a roadmap to cement the growth of Indian football landscape. The AIFF also recognized the ISL as the premier league championship of Indian football and accordingly delegated the AFC selections among the I-League winners and the ISL winners. Other key recommendations to implement the roadmap were:

  1. The 2022-23 season would allow the winner of the I-League to be promoted into the ISL without paying any participation fee, thus fulfilling the criteria of sporting merit. 
  2. The ISL teams shall not be subject to relegation, in keeping with the Master Rights Agreements that came to existence in 2014.
  3. The 2024-25 season will be when the AIFF shall fully integrate the two leagues, merging the two parallel leagues. 

The following provisions will help the Indian football to reach new heights and grow in stature and as an industry. Along with the promising future of the national football landscape, the agreed roadmap will also allow the ISL teams to compete and ascertain their standards on an international stage in the AFC club competitions.

The ISL is also a financially stronger structure that will help the development of the grassroot football talent within the country. A primary deficiency in the Indian football scene is that the foreign knowledge is rarely imbued within the national players. Under the ISL regime, it is safe to say that this will be a stepping stone with a promise to unravel the immense potential that Indian football has to offer the world.

The future merger of the two leagues also promises a more marketable approach in domestic football which will in turn attract foreign and corporate investments. This can largely help in improving the structural foundations to better nurture the talent of the society. The AIFF, if successful in its endeavour, can open the doors of not only the desired commercial success, but also to victories on pitches as well.

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