AIFF set to make ISL India's top league

Vipin Pawar /SPORTZPICS for ISL

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is set to make the Indian Super League (ISL) the top football league in the country, superseding the I-League, from the 2019-20 season, even as seven I-League clubs have promised legal action when such a decision is formally announced by AIFF.

A top AIFF source told ESPN that the AIFF were "contract-bound" as per their 2010 Master Rights Agreement with Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), to make the ISL the "most senior and prestigious" league of India.

"It's a matter of formality, because we are contract-bound. There's no way out of it," said the source, on condition of anonymity. The source also cited the reconstitution or replacement of the I-League with a newer league run by AIFF's marketing partners as a central tenet of the 15-year deal signed in 2010. This was also something that FSDL had indicated in their proposed roadmap, revealed to all stakeholders in Indian football in May 2016.

Meanwhile, the I-League clubs met in New Delhi and announced that they would approach the "appropriate courts" when such a decision is announced . "To be told now that the I League will no longer be the top league is completely unnacceptable and illegal and we pledge to fight this together as one football family which carries the tradition of Indian football," said a joint statement which carries the signatures of representatives from East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Gokulam Kerala, Minerva Punjab and Churchill Brothers.

The source said that there were no immediate plans to demote the I-League to the second division, saying there might be a continental slot for the I-League champions in future. "The top slot will go to the ISL, but the I-League can be a parallel league. We may not call it the second division or League 1. We can continue it as I-League, and add value to it. Maybe we can look to keep an AFC slot for it too."

While reigning I-League champions Chennai City will enter the 2020 AFC Champions League play-off round as India's lone representatives, ISL champions Bengaluru FC will only start with the preliminary stages of the second-rung AFC Cup next year -- but the former slot is also set to go to the ISL from the following season.

AIFF is also considering the matter of fines imposed on some of the I-League clubs for their refusal to play the Super Cup, citing their desire to meet with AIFF president Praful Patel to discuss the future of the league. Five I-League clubs had initially been sanctioned with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs (approx. $14,400) while a fine of half that amount was imposed on East Bengal. The fine was reportedly revised to Rs 27.5 lakhs (approx. $40,000) but the source said the AIFF Appeals Committee will take a call on what to do next.