Indian Super League (ISL) will replace the I-League as top-tier competition in the country after the stakeholders agreed to a proposal of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), ending the long-drawn and contentious restructuring process.
In a meeting at the AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, the I-League and ISL clubs agreed on a roadmap presented by the AFC on domestic football structure reforms in India.
As per the roadmap, the ISL will be the top league in the country from this season itself while I-League will continue as second tier league.
The ISL, which begins in Kochi on October 20, will not have promotion and relegation till 2023-24 by which time the League would have completed 10 seasons.
From the 2024-25 season onwards, performance-based promotion and relegation will be implemented and there will not be two parallel leagues.
The ISL champions would now be entitled to a play-off place in the AFC Champions League, the top-tier club competition in Asia, while I-League champions would compete in the second tier AFC Cup "as a special compensation to India".
The proposals will now be presented to the AFC Executive Committee and the AIFF Executive Committee, but their approval is expected to be a mere formality.
Another key recommendation by the AFC is to open a pathway for two I-League clubs' entry into the ISL by the end of the 2020-21 season, subject to the licensing criteria being fulfilled.
There has been speculation for some time that Mohun Bagan and East Bengal may join the ISL but no agreement could be reached as the two Kolkata giants wanted a waiver of the Rs 15 crore participation fee.
The AFC statement is not clear on the participation fee issue but AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das said the two clubs will have to pay the fee.
"Whichever two clubs (open for inclusion in the ISL) will have to pay the participation fee. This is also according to FIFA recommendation," Das told PTI from Kuala Lumpur.
In addition to this, the AFC proposal said starting with the 2022-23 season, the winner of I-League will stand a chance to be promoted to the ISL with no participation fee, subject to fulfilling sporting merit and the national club licensing criteria to be set out by the AIFF.
"Everyone has to put the good of Indian football at the forefront and take the best decisions to develop Indian club football. The AFC will be very much involved to ensure the growth of the game to the next level with the pathway to a single league," AFC General Secretary Dato' Windsor John said in a statement.
"Every point of this package has been thought out extremely carefully and it is aimed simply at providing the best chance to develop Indian club football. We have informed AIFF that 10-12 teams are not enough for the top League -- it must be bigger.
"I am sure that if this roadmap is considered further, then Indian football will see the benefits for the game. We are now all working together to deliver the best future," he added.
Kushal Das said the proposed roadmap was in the best interest of all stake holders in Indian football.
"We have to be financially sustainable and take into consideration all commercial and contractual aspects of this plan because commerce is key to football... footballing legacy and investment are equally important for the development of Indian football," Das added.
Mohun Bagan secretary Debashish Dutta said that his club is happy with the roadmap of Indian football.
"We have been fighting for it for a long time for a proper roadmap of Indian football and today we are successful. After five years there will be one league with promotion and relegation and that they (I-League winners) can play without franchise fee from the fourth year, it's the biggest achievement for Indian football," Dutta said.
Former I-League champions Minerva Punjab owner Ranjit Bajaj, who had earlier vociferously opposed the AIFF's move to grant ISL the top league status, said he was happy that main concerns of the I-League clubs have been addressed.
"Four clubs are being promoted (to ISL) by four years and then promotion and relegation (in ISL) will start. I consider this as a victory even at the cost of losing the AFC Champions League spot," he said.