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ISL vs I-League - AIFF's two-league conundrum

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) executive committee has recommended the elevation of the franchise-based Indian Super League (ISL) to the top division of Indian football, at the expense of the I-League. This decision, three years in the making, has reopened the debate over the right roadmap for Indian domestic football. 

Here's a look at the timeline of events leading up to this situation:

December 9, 2010

The AIFF announce the signing up of International Management Group-Reliance (IMG-R) as their commercial partners for a 15-year period, in an agreement estimated to be worth INR 700 crore (approx. $155 million, according to the prevalent exchange rate). The agreement gives IMG-R all commercial rights to football in India, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights.

October 21, 2013

Even as the I-League continues, AIFF, IMG-R and Star Sports announce the launch of the ISL, a franchise-based league featuring a league-cum-knockout format. The first season of the ISL is originally planned for January 2014, but is deferred to September 2014 on October 29.

October 12, 2014

The ISL begins with Atletico de Kolkata -- a team with affiliations with Atletico Madrid and co-owned by former Indian cricket captain Sourav Gangly -- facing Mumbai City FC in Kolkata. At the launch of the ISL, contested by eight teams in the first season, AIFF president Praful Patel calls the ISL a "tournament", one that will be used as a "booster dose" for Indian football.

May 17, 2016

AIFF and IMG-R meet with stakeholders across Indian football, including I-League clubs and ISL franchise owners, and reveal their plans to create a three-tier division of Indian football. Under this plan, ISL would be the premier division, and I-League would be renamed League 1, with the official second division renamed League 2. There would be promotion and relegation only between League 1 and League 2, while the ISL would have no relegation, and new teams would only be added as per the league's wishes, and subject to a franchise fee. Significantly, the existing AFC slots for two Indian teams -- AFC Champions League for I-League champions, and AFC Cup for Federation Cup winners -- would be re-allocated to the ISL winners.

Also read: All you need to know about AIFF's plan for a new league

June 7, 2017

AIFF and the key stakeholders of Indian football decide to hold the ISL and I-League simultaneously over the following season on a trial basis. The start of the ISL season is also deferred post-September due to the FIFA U-17 World Cup in October-November.

Two-time I-League champions Bengaluru FC announce on June 12 that they will be competing in the ISL from the following season, as the ISL is expanded to 10 teams, with Jamshedpur FC also set to join in for 2017-18. Kolkata clubs Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are also rumoured to be in the running for operating teams, but back out citing concerns over the steep franchise fee of INR 15 crore (approx. $ 2.3 million), and being told to relocate from Kolkata in keeping with ISL's 'one-city-one-team' policy.

March 17, 2018

Chennaiyin FC beat BFC 2-1 in the ISL final in Bengaluru, and effectively become the first team from the ISL to qualify for continental competition, with a slot for the AFC Cup that was previously reserved for the Federation Cup champions. The Federation Cup is replaced by the Super Cup, where the I-League and ISL teams are drawn together to play a knockout format. BFC win the first Super Cup in the summer of 2018, though there is no continental slot on offer. Minerva Punjab, who win the I-League, get the AFC Champions League slot for 2019.

May 29, 2018

Media reports emerge of an AFC-backed report, written by consultants appointed by the continental confederation, of a unified domestic league for India, with promotion and relegation. The report suggests, among other things, that while the concurrent leagues could continue for 2018-19, there should be a playoff for the "Indian championship title" to represent India in AFC competitions in 2020. 

Also read: AFC-backed report proposes unified league for India

February 18, 2019

Even with the I-League heading to a close finish, eight of the clubs write to Patel seeking an appointment on February 20 to discuss the future of the I-League. This comes amid media reports of the ISL "all set to be branded the top league of the country." The teams also seek answers on what they call the "interference" of AIFF's marketing partners Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) [formerly IMG-R] in decision-making in Indian football.

March 15, 2019

The second edition of the Super Cup gets underway in Bhubaneswar, and over the first two days of qualification round matches, I-League clubs Minerva Punjab, Gokulam Kerala and Aizawl FC give a walkover to their ISL opponents. The clubs claim to be present in the city, and demand a meeting with Patel, as more I-League clubs join the boycott of Super Cup matches. Only Indian Arrows, Real Kashmir and I-League's new champions Chennai City FC play their Super Cup games. Patel later agrees to meet the teams between "April 10 and 15" but calls it off on April 6, citing the I-League teams' Super Cup pullout. The I-League clubs are fined monetarily as well.

Also read: What is the I-League-AIFF showdown all about?

June 24, 2019

AIFF sources tell ESPN that making the ISL the top football league of India is a "mere formality" and that the federation is "contract-bound" as per their Master Rights Agreement (MRA) signed in 2010. On July 3, Patel meets the I-League clubs in New Delhi and says he will approach the AFC to ensure that both leagues co-exist for another two-three years. The I-League clubs respond the following day by reiterating their demand to retain the AFC Champions League slot for their champions.

July 8, 2019

Six of the I-League clubs write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and request his intervention and the formation of an enquiry commission to "probe" AIFF's functioning. One of the club officials tells ESPN that the clubs would be prepared to go to court to challenge the MRA's legality, should AIFF elevate the ISL to the top tier of Indian football.

July 25, 2019

After the I-League clubs write to both the AFC and FIFA seeking their intervention, the world governing body writes back to the AIFF seeking an update on the 2018 report prepared in collaboration with AFC, saying that many of the suggestions being discussed towards a potentially unified "Indian Football League" are related to suggestions made in it. FIFA also urges AIFF to consider the "clear and concrete recommendations" made in the report.

August 7, 2019

FIFA writes to I-League club Minerva Punjab, copying AIFF and AFC in their communication, urging the I-League clubs to work closely with the AIFF, suggesting that the parent body is "best placed" to find a solution to "complex issues" that it believes require a "prudent and measured approach".


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