India get third AFC slot for 2021, possible direct ACL group entry

Bengaluru FC's Sunil Chhetri leads out his team-mates during the 2016 AFC Cup final against Air Force Club in Doha, Qatar. Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Indian clubs are set to get an additional slot in AFC competitions in 2021, possibly with a direct entry into the AFC Champions League (ACL) group stages. It would be the first time an Indian team would feature in Asia's elite club competition in more than 30 years -- Goa-based Salgaocar were the last team to feature in group games of the erstwhile Asian Club Championship in 1990-91.

This would mean apart from the one slot for the ACL, India would get two slots for the AFC Cup.

As of now, two Indian clubs qualify for Asian club competitions -- the I-League champions Chennai City FC will feature in the ACL preliminary rounds in January 2020, while BFC enter the AFC Cup from the playoff stages a month later. With the ISL elevated to India's top division, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had swapped the competitions for the two league winners for the season to follow, with a further clarification that the ISL regular season group topper would make the ACL, and not the winner of the final.

Interestingly, the AFC has also decided that the winner of the AFC Cup would get an ACL playoff slot for the following season.

These decisions weres taken during AFC competitions committee's meeting in Tokyo on Saturday.

Here's a simple deconstruction of what it means for Indian football.

Where does the extra slot fit in?

India have an extra AFC Cup slot now from 2021, with a playoff slot retained by the I-League winners, and one undetermined slot now confirmed for AFC Cup's group stages.

The ISL group stage winners will be incorporated into the ACL, but as of now, ESPN understands they are only assured of a playoff slot, though India's performance and rankings in 2020 could help convert that into a group stage entry.

AFC have also increased the number of teams in the ACL group stages from 32 to 40, with countries like Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore now getting a chance to enter the group stages of the ACL alongside India.

How do the Indian performances in 2020 influence their rankings?

AFC has a simple system of awarding points for member associations -- a 90 percent weightage for each result in AFC competitions, and 10 percent for their national team's performances in the FIFA world rankings.

India have dropped from 13th to 15th in the club rankings for 2019, with both Minerva Punjab and Chennaiyin failing to advance beyond the AFC Cup group stages this year, and the national team also having won just two matches the whole year.

What else remains to be decided?

If India's club and national team performances can string together some wins, then the ISL champions will have a chance of competing with Asia's elite. What will also be of interest will be who gets the second AFC Cup slot -- do the AIFF give that to the ISL final winners? Or do they incentivise the Super Cup for I-League clubs and ISL teams alike by leaving one slot open for the winners of the knockout competition?