How can Indian clubs play in the AFC Champions League?
The Indian clubs have never been able to make it to the top club competition of the continent.
Indian football has seen all the highs and the lows in its long history of existence but there was always one aspect of the country's footballing scene that remained intact- India's participation in the AFC Asian Champions League- the premier club competition in the continent.
Recently, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has asked the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to allot India a direct spot to the AFC Champions League for the champions of the Indian Super League(ISL).
Since the AFC Champions League's inception in 2002, the Indian football fans never found themselves lucky enough to witness an Indian club making it to the group stage of the elite club competition.
It can be argued that the Indian clubs did play the Asian Club Championship, making their first appearance in that competition in 1969, the second edition of the competition (India withdrew in the inaugral edition). India's Mysore State finished fourth in the 1969 edition.
But the club competition system at that time was not distinctly divided into two tiers, while Europe already had Europa league as second-tier competition from 1971 itself. The AFC Cup, Asia's second tier competition came into existence only in 2004.
Hence it can be fairly concluded that Indian clubs have so far been unable to make it to the top tier of the Asian club competition at least since the two-tier system came into existence in the landscape.
So how do clubs play the AFC Champions League?
The Asian Football Confederation has a system of allotment of spots of the ACL to the clubs. The leagues of different countries are awarded spots based on the AFC Members Association (MA) rankings. The AFC has broadly classified football subfederations in the continent into two geographical zones- East and West.
East zone contains East Asia and ASEAN and West zone contains West Asian Football Federation,, Central Asian Football Association and South Asian Football Federation (SAFF), which was recently moved from East to West zone.
Thus Indian clubs are ranked according to the West Zone clubs.
The countries which rank 1-12 in each zone are eligible to play in the ACL. The top 6 countries get at least one direct spot to the group stage of the ACL. The countries ranking 7-12 will get one qualification spot. A total of 12 direct spots are allowed and 4 spots are filled through qualifiers.
The countries ranked 1st and 2nd each get three direct slots and one play-off slot, 3rd and 4th ranked nations each get two direct slots and two play-off slots, 5th one each gets one direct slot and two play-off slots and the one ranked 6th each gets one direct slot and one play-off slot.
The 2017 AFC MA rankings decides the slot allocation for the 2019 and 2020 seasons of the club competition.
According to the 2017 rankings, India is ranked 14th overall and 8th in West zone, which makes India ineligible for a direct group stage spot at least till 2020.
The AFC MA rankings is completely based on the clubs' performances in the competition. For the seasons 2021 and thereafter, Indian clubs will have to perform very well in the continental club competitions to earn a direct spot to the ACL.
But the task seems more daunting than ever. Until 2018, Iraqi clubs were not allowed to play the ACL due to the clubs not meeting the AFC criteria. Thus India only needed a 7th position spot to make it to the group stage. But this year, Al Zawraa, the Iraqi club champions were allowed to play the ACL and now India has to reach the 6th position to earn a direct spot, which means India must replace Uzbekistan, which is a regular to the ACL and also the clubs of which have been doing well in the competition.
What makes achieving this feat more difficult is the fact that Indian clubs- Chennaiyin FC and Minerva Punjab had a dismal outing in Asia and for the first time in many years India couldn't even make it out of the group stage of the AFC Cup, a huge downgrade after Bengaluru FC finished runner-ups in 2016.
The spots for the 2021 and 2022 club competitions will most likely depend on the 2018 MA Rankings and the trend may continue until the AFC brings about a change to this structure.
Hence it is safe to say that it is high time Indian clubs must pull up socks and play wholeheartedly in the club competitions.
Indian clubs of both Indian Super League and I-league have shown superior quality in the recent times and have enough potential to make it to the group stage of the ACL through qualifiers itself without needing a direct spot. If the clus keep performing well we can in the years to come see India not just participate but also dominate the AFC Champions League.