The dynamics of India's domestic club football is about to change with the Indian Super League (ISL) winners representing the nation in the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) Champions League preliminary qualifiers from 2019-20.
Till last season, the same spot went to the I-League champions and the AFC Cup playoff berth was for the ISL winners to keep. This would also result in the elevation of the ISL as India's top league as the All India Football Federation (AIFF) looks to reverse the continental berths.
However, does this swap of Asian spots make a difference? Hardly.
No Indian team has ever qualified for the group stages of the AFC Champions League in its current format, the premier continental club competition in Asia. In 2002, the AFC revamped the structure of the competition, which was known as the Asian Club Championship before. In 2004, the Asian body introduced a secondary competition - the AFC Cup, Asia's equivalent to the Europa League.
The AFC Champions League predominantly caters to clubs from countries that lie in the upper echelons of Asian football. Case in point, in the ongoing 2019 edition, the top twelve member nations according to the AFC member ranking got 24 direct spots out of 32 in the group stage. 27 teams from 22 member nations then fought it out to fill the remaining eight spots in the group stages.
India's representative, Minerva Punjab, the I-League 2017-18 champions entered the competition in the second preliminary round. From there, they had to win two rounds to enter the competition proper but got knocked out by Iran's Saipa at the first time of asking.
That has been the case with all Indian clubs so far. In recent history, Aizawl FC, the 2016-17 I-League champions came the closest to sniffing out a group stage place as they entered the 2018 AFC Champions League in the play-off round, only one win away from history. While Iran's Zob Ahan defeated the Mizoram side, the only reason the Indian champions got a bye to the final round of qualifying was due to the absence of teams from Iraq, Kuwait and Syria - all above India in member rankings that year.
Till date, Mohun Bagan (4) and Churchill Brothers (1) are the only Indian sides to have won AFC Champions League qualifying games. Churchill's victory and three of Bagan's wins came in the inaugural 2002-03 campaign itself, where the format was quite different. In the present format, Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan beat Singapore's Tampines Rovers in the 2016 edition's first preliminary round and then suffered a 6-0 loss to Chinese outfit Shandong Luneng in the next.
Over the years, Dempo, Pune FC and Bengaluru FC have tried their luck but have all failed to succeed. Therefore, all these clubs fall back into the AFC Cup with a direct group stage berth, meaning two Indian clubs end up playing in the AFC Cup.
However, performances in the AFC Cup by Indian sides have been encouraging with Bengaluru FC even reaching the final of the 2016 edition when the format was changed. They did not have to face any West Asian sides until the final which made life a bit easier for them. East Bengal have a semi-final (2013) and quarter-final (2004) appearance to their name. Dempo (2008) became the first India club to reach the final four of the tournament. Back then, it was a lot difficult as they had to face West Asian sides. Hence, the achievement of these clubs are held at a higher pedestal by fans.
The 2019 AFC Cup dream is already over for Indian teams as both Minerva Punjab and Chennaiyin FC were knocked out in the group stage, a first since 2012.
Provisionally, 2018-19 I-League champions Chennai City FC are poised to enter the qualification for the 2020 AFC Champions League in the very first preliminary round itself. India's current AFC member rank is 15th in Asia and 8th in the Western region. If Chennai City are to play in the group stages, they will have to win three rounds against tough opposition, which on paper looks highly improbable.
It is widely expected that Chennai City would join Bengaluru FC, the 2018-19 ISL champions, in the 2020 AFC Cup. Therefore, this solution of ISL and I-League winners swapping continental spots barely makes much of a difference, barring a miracle, but keeps all stakeholders in Indian football satisfied.