Saturday’s expected humdinger will end another I-League season, one which survived Covid-19 and continued the recent tradition of going down to the wire. With 2022-23 being the first where I-League champions would be promoted to the Indian Super League (ISL), as per the pathway decided in 2019, clubs have written to All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) as, according to Gokulam Kerala FC president VC Praveen, “(almost) three years have gone by and we haven’t heard from anyone.”
The AIFF said its position hasn’t changed. “The road map is there and in 2023, the winners of the I-League will get promoted to ISL without paying franchise fee,” AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said. “Similarly in 2023-24. And after that promotion and relegation will start (in ISL). This is an agreed structure where all the clubs were present in AFC (in October 2019) and there is absolutely no change as far as AIFF is concerned.”
A draft of the next season’s calendar should be ready this month, said Das. The calendar will include all youth competitions, paused since 2019 due to Covid-19, beginning with the national under-17 junior women’s championship in Assam next month. From that competition some girls might be asked to join the national team readying for the under-17 World Cup in India later this year, he said.
The Asian Games being deferred has opened the possibility of the senior men’s team using the last Fifa window in 2022, in September. “Once ISL starts, possibly in October, it would be difficult to get clubs to release players, so the national team’s next engagement is likely to be after March,” he said.
The India men’s squad is readying for the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers scheduled in June in Kolkata. Should they make the finals—head coach Igor Stimac has said he is confident of that happening—scheduled in June 2023, the earliest preparatory camp will be after the 2022-23 season, said the AIFF official.
The India under-17 women’s team, which will play in the 2022 World Cup from October 11-30, is likely to prepare for the showpiece with games in Europe in July, including a tournament in Norway, and three friendlies in August. There is also a plan to host a three or four-nation competition in September. The squad is now training in Jamshedpur under Swede Thomas Dennerby.
Like with the senior women’s team ahead of the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, a selection from the national championships could play a friendly with India, said another AIFF official. The official, requesting anonymity as he isn’t authorised to speak to the media, also said negotiations are on to schedule friendlies against USA under-23 and Sweden under-23 teams for the senior women’s side this year.
Won’t these plans be affected by the government grant being significantly trimmed to ₹5 crore? “Preparation for the under-17 team is something we cannot ignore,” said Das. “Despite allegations of financial irregularities, we have one of the finest budgetary control, cost control and approval processes in place. This has resulted in helping us build a fairly healthy reserve. So, we can tide over this and, of course, I am assuming this will be temporary.”
After saying that the slash was “somewhat unfair” as based on average year-end Fifa rankings, India had improved over 50 positions between 2010-2016 and 2016-2021, Das said he was hopeful the situation would change, “when India qualify for Asian Cup” and that “the sports secretary told me at the meeting that it (the grant) will be reviewed.”
Bookended by cup competitions, the men’s 2022-23 season will be around eight months. It will start with the 20-team Durand Cup in September which “will be mandatory for all ISL clubs to play.” Last year, ATK Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal were among the notable ISL teams that had skipped the competition, the world’s third oldest. The season will end with a 20-club Super Cup, again featuring all ISL teams. Both the Durand Cup and Super Cup will also have I-League teams, said Das. The Super Cup hasn’t been held since 2019.
Also to be implemented from 2022-23 is a rule mandating states to hold leagues that last a minimum of two months and around 40-45 games. Barring Goa, Punjab, Mizoram and Assam none of the AIFF’s 31 affiliated units could do that in the women’s game last season. The corresponding number for the men’s league is 16. Das accepted getting state associations to have longer seasons is difficult because funds are a problem, but said: “AIFF has told states that if they come up with a good project, we will look at them separately.”
With overdue elections mired in litigation, AIFF has sought fresh legal opinion. In 2017 a submission was made to the Delhi High Court that AIFF elections of 2016 should be annulled as it did not follow the national sports code. The high court appointed an administrator and AIFF petitioned the Supreme Court contending such a move could lead to de-recognition from Fifa on grounds of government interference. Stating that barring major financial and policy decisions, AIFF could function, the Supreme Court appointed two ombudsmen to review its constitution.
“We haven’t heard from the Supreme Court on it,” said Das. AIFF sought the apex court’s direction in 2020 ahead of elections but “dates are given and dates get changed,” he said. “Many may believe the AIFF is manipulating but I can assure you that AIFF is not so influential to manipulate the apex court of the country.”