Mohammedan Sporting and RoundGlass Punjab FC are two clubs that have come along well in the past few years. The Kolkata giants had been plagued with inner turmoil and financial constraints for a long time but now seem to have woken up from their slumber. On the other hand, Punjab FC are relatively new in the Indian footballing landscape but are one of most inspirational success stories of the last decade. With both clubs setting their eyes on a coveted Indian Super League (ISL) spot, we try to understand how prepared they are and what challenges they might face.
I-League champions in the 2017-18 season, Punjab FC have had an eventful last couple of years. Known then as Minerva Punjab, the club got new co-owners in 2019 when RoundGlass Sports came on board following a merger. Thereafter, the company took full ownership of the club and has since indicated that RoundGlass Punjab FC aim to participate in the ISL in the near future.
Their recruitment has reflected that too with them bringing in Joseba Beitia from Mohun Bagan, Bhutanese star forward Chencho Gyeltshen, Souvik Das and Bikramjeet Singh. They have also brought in former Olympiacos youth coach Nikolaos Topoliatis as the new technical director and former Middlesbrough player Curtis Fleming as head coach. With all of these developments, the club seems to be heading in the right direction and have started their I-League season with a victory over Aizawl FC.
The same upward trajectory can hopefully be seen with Mohammedan SC as well as they try to launch a comeback towards mainstream relevance. The Black Panthers will be playing in the I-League this season after an impressive qualifying campaign in September and are one of the favourites for the league title as well. Like SC East Bengal, they too have new investors on board in the form of sports management firm Bunkerhill. With the newfound buzz around the club which has only increased since their opening day win over Sudeva FC, a good I-League campaign may result in them staking a claim for inclusion in the ISL.
However, there are multiple factors at play here. In 2019, the AIFF had presented a roadmap for Indian football which proposed the entry of two I-League teams into the ISL by the end of the 2020-21 season. Since then, both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have made the switch. However, what hasn’t been clarified yet is whether Mohun Bagan’s inclusion in the ISL will be considered as a new entry or if they will simply be taking ATK’s place. If the latter is decided upon, it leaves one slot open for an I-League club to push themselves towards.
Similarly, AIFF’s plans for the 2021-22 season are also not clear as of now. The league format and the number of teams playing next season is yet to be decided. If Punjab or Mohammedan SC win the I-League this season, it might so happen that they are fast-tracked into the ISL in an attempt to feed the league that is more commercially viable. One has to also remember that both these teams have quite a dedicated fan-base and are by far the two most recognizable entities in the I-League from a business perspective as well. Then there’s the small matter of paying the franchise fee as well.
All in all, these two clubs are the best equipped to make the transition seamlessly. However, whether the AIFF and FSDL will allow two new sides to join the ISL a season after Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have joined the league remains to be seen. Although it’s not impossible, there are a number of stakeholders at play and how this situation plays out in the end might be the next big story in Indian football.