ISL 2019-20 table-toppers to get a direct group stage slot at 2021 AFC Champions League?
The table-toppers of the 2019-20 edition of Indian Super League might get a direct group stage slot at the 2021 AFC Champions League after the AFC Competitions Committee approved additional slots for the Member Associations ranked seven to ten in both East and West Zone in Asia's most coveted club competition.
The 2021 edition of AFC Champions League will see the tournament expand to 40 teams as compared to the present 32 so as to "transform the competition from exclusive to inclusive by increasing the number of Member Associations competing from 12 to 20."
Currently, only the top six Member Associations in each East and West Zone get direct slots at the AFC Champions League group stage. India is placed fifteenth overall and eighth in the West Zone behind Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Uzbekistan, and Jordan.
India is also ranked eighth in West Zone as per the 2017 MA rankings, which is used to allocate slots for the 2020 AFC Champions League. Thus, for an Indian club to qualify, they need to go through the Qualifiers.
But, things will change from 2021. India could get a direct slot in the group stage of AFC Champions League provided their MA rankings don't fall.
For the first time in seven years in 2019, an Indian club failed to reach the knockout stages of the AFC Cup after both Minerva Punjab and Chennaiyin FC stumbled in group stages. Fortunately, India didn't lose any position in the rankings ladder.
AFC heeded to AIFF's request to grant the ISL table-toppers an AFC Champions League Qualifiers slot and I-League champions the AFC Cup Qualifiers slot from 2021 season onwards. But, the ISL organizers might get more than what they bargained for.
As AFC has made it clear that the Member Associations ranked seventh to tenth in their respective zones will get additional slots and no changes will be made to the existing slots for the top six Member Associations, India might retain their AFC Champions League Qualifiers slot as well. It remains to be seen whether that will go to I-League winners or ISL trophy winners or runners up.
However, one has to note that the clubs will have to fulfil the licensing criteria to participate in the 2021 AFC Champions League.
Only Chennai City FC, Bengaluru FC, FC Goa, Jamshedpur FC, ATK, and Chennaiyin FC have been granted the 2020 AFC Champions League license with sanction out of the 19 Indian club applicants. In case the ISL table-toppers fail to get the 2021 AFC Champions League license, they will not be allowed to participate in the tournament.