MUMBAI (Reuters) - India’s FA has thrown its weight behind a popular franchise-based league by calling on the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to award its champions a slot in the continent’s elite club competition.
Currently, the winners of the traditional I-League are awarded the AFC Champions League slot, while the champions of the upstart Indian Super League (ISL) gain entry to the secondary AFC Cup competition.
The ISL, promoted by billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and Rupert Murdoch’s Star India TV, has grown in popularity since its 2014 launch, whereas interest in the I-League has stagnated.
The I-League was formed in 2007 as a rebrand of the National Football League, India’s first professional league launched in 1996.
Openly backing the ISL as the country’s elite competition for the first time, the Indian FA (AIFF) said its recommendation was based on the Master Rights Agreement it signed in 2010 with its commercial partners Football Sports Development Limited.
It said in a statement “... in the last five years the entire Indian National squad are mostly being signed/playing for the ... Indian Super League clubs.
“TV viewership and in-stadia audience having grown far more substantially vis a vis the ... I-League,” it added.
The AIFF has been toying with the idea of merging the leagues before deciding to let both continue for the time being.
Earlier this week, six I-League clubs wrote to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting intervention and an enquiry into the running of the AIFF.
The AIFF said it has sought help from the AFC to sort out the issues plaguing soccer in the country.
“The AIFF Executive Committee requests the Asian Football Confederation to send a high-level delegation ... at the earliest to discuss this issue with all stakeholders of Indian football ... to arrive at a fair solution,” it said.
Cricket-mad India, home to 1.3 billion people, is a massive underachiever as far as football is concerned and the country has yet to make a single appearance at the World Cup finals.
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Peter Rutherford