The group stage winners of the Indian Super League (ISL) will be awarded a spot in the AFC Champions League (ACL) – the first time that a team from India will qualify directly for the high-profile competition. The ACL is Asia’s premier club competition, with the best clubs from across the continent participating. It would be the first time in 30 years – after Salgaocar featured in the group games of the Asian Club Championship in 1990 – that an Indian side would play in the elite event.
As of now, two Indian teams qualify for the Asian club competition – the I-League winners enter the ACL prelim rounds, while the ISL champions enter the AFC Cup in the play-off stage. With the direct entry, the Indian clubs will no longer need to pass the play-off hurdle.
The move comes after the AFC expanded its competition to 40 teams from 2021 – up from the 32 that it sees now. “We now have a direct spot in the AFC Champions League (group stage) which will be awarded to ISL League winner. The I-League champion will head directly in the AFC Cup group stage, while we have another AFC Cup spot, which is most likely to be awarded to the ISL League runner-up,” All India Football Federation (AIFF) general secretary Kushal Das told the Times of India.
What does it mean for Indian football?
India have not had the best year on the circuit in either the AFC or the international stage. Both Minerva Punjab and Chennaiyin FC – the I-League champion and the ISL winner respectively – failed to advance beyond the AFC Cup group stage in 2019, while the national team won just two games. As a result, India dropped from 13th to 15th in the AFC club rankings, with 90% of the points calculated coming from the nation’s performance in the AFC competitions and another 10% from their showings in the FIFA world rankings.
The direct entry, then, will allow the Indian clubs to face stiffer competition as they can analyze and study their flaws while on the big stage.