As ATK, Mohun Bagan reign supreme, what happens to India’s AFC slots?

Debkalpa Banerjee

ATK became the most successful club in ISL history with their third title win on Saturday. (Source: ISL)

Amidst the deafening silence in Margao and the exulting cries of the players, ATK's Roy Krishna lifted the club's third Indian Super League (ISL) title on Saturday. Under the lights of the Fatorda Stadium, filled with orphaned banners, the Kolkata-based outfit became the most successful club in ISL history after defeating Chennaiyin FC 3-1 in the final.

Fans or no fans, ATK's title triumph meant that they had confirmed their continental qualification for the 2020/21 season. But with India having three AFC slots from next season and the ATK-Mohun Bagan merger set to take place, the confusion rules large.

As per the proposed roadmap laid down by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) last October, the slots for AFC competitions from 2021 onwards are as follows:

— The winner of ISL's League Winners Shield (the team that finishes top of the table after the league phase) will get a direct slot into the AFC Champions League

— The winner of I-League will get a direct slot in the AFC Cup as a special dispensation for three years

— The winner of the ISL trophy will get a slot into the AFC Cup play-offs

Mohun Bagan pocketed their second I-League title on Tuesday itself with four games to spare after beating Aizawl FC 1-0 at the Kalyani Stadium — hence, booking a place in the AFC Cup group stages. But since the Mariners have entered into a merger with ATK, after the RP-Sanjiv Goenka (RPSG) Group acquired 80 percent stake in the Mohun Bagan Football Club (India) Private Limited on January 16, the new ATK-Mohun Bagan entity will likely avail the spot.

Mohun Bagan are on an unassailable 39 points from 16 matches, 16 more than their nearest rivals. (Source: I-League)

With FC Goa sealing their historic berth in AFC Champions League group stages by topping the league table with 39 points from 18 matches, the third AFC slot is left open — the one which ATK acquired on Saturday after becoming the ISL champions.

To remove the ambiguity from the equation, AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das confirmed to Times of India that the third slot will go to Chennaiyin FC by virtue of them finishing as the runners-up in the ISL playoffs.

“I can’t understand why there should be confusion over the continental spots. There are three spots for three different competitions. If a spot is vacated by any club for whatever reason, the next best will be accommodated," Das said.

ATK's owner and RPSG Group chairperson, Sanjiv Goenka even confirmed that the club's manager, Antonio Lopez Habas will be leading the new entity next season. He also expressed his aspirations after the club secured continental places on Saturday.

READ | Mohun Bagan-ATK merger: Identity crisis or need of the hour?

"The mission is to become worthy of playing internationally and making a team that can compete effectively and hopefully win there as well. We hope to reassemble in July but there will be bits and pieces happening now,” he said.

Goenka also confirmed that the new entity, which will be formed officially on June 1, has already signed Manvir Singh from FC Goa and Subhashis Bose from Mumbai City FC for the upcoming season.

As it stands, ISL is all set to dominate all the continental participation from 2021, with FC Goa qualifying for the AFC Champions League group stages, ATK-Mohun Bagan playing in the AFC Cup group stages, and Chennaiyin FC booking a place in the AFC Cup play-off stages.

Earlier, India had just two AFC quotas with the ISL champions earning a place in the preliminary round of the AFC Champions League and the I-League winners going through to the group stages of the AFC Cup. But, with the expansion of the AFC Champions League from 32 to 40 teams from 2021, it was announced that India will be allotted a direct slot.

READ | Goa’s authority to Chennaiyin’s revival: The tale of ISL’s final four