New Delhi: The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is looking at a February-March 2017 timeframe in finalising a roadmap for the proposed Indian Super League (ISL), I-League merger, involving 10 or 11 teams, but insisted on Monday on a patient, comprehensive approach rather than a swift and messy unification of the two domestic tournaments.
The planned composite league with all the eight Indian Super League (ISL) and select I-League teams has been in the pipeline for sometime with the AIFF also formulating a rough sketch of the merger with ISL becoming the top-flight tournament and the I-League, to be renamed League One, becoming the second tier event, which has met with ample criticism and confusion.
Former champions Salgaocar have already declared to skip the impending I-League, to start in January next year. Fellow Goan clubs are also reportedly mulling the same route but are yet to make public their intentions.
The AIFF originally pushed for a 2017-18 unveiling of the new-look league. The governing body is looking to stick to its original deadline. But for that to happen all contentious aspects have to fall in place by February-March next year.
"If we don`t arrive at a amicable plan for the stakeholders, then the plan will be moved back for the 2018-19 season," AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said, on the sidelines of a book launch named Back To The Roots, written by global football body FIFA`s regional development officer Shaji Prabhakaran, here on Monday.
The new league will ideally comprise 10 teams -- the eight ISL franchises and two I-League clubs, reigning champions Bengaluru FC and runners-up Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan reportedly better placed at making the cut.
But the AIFF is also open to a 11-team format with another Kolkata heavyweights East Bengal also in the fray.
"The number of teams to participate in the league is yet to be decided," Das added.
Accommodating the contrasting demands and ideology and legacy of traditional I-League clubs and the corporate franchises of the ISL have come in the way of the AIFF`s ambitious plan.
"We can`t take any shortcuts. We have to think of a well define plan and all stakeholders have to be taken aboard. The time frame spoken of is being set by everybody except us. We are step by step moving in the direction and I can`t say how many clubs will play in it," Patel told IANS at the same event.
"We respect all the legacy clubs that have contributed to Indian football. But at the same time we have no shortage of interest among new clubs who want to play in I-League," he added.
The AIFF also set a taskforce together with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to put together a satisfactory path for the composite competition.
The AFC later committed only to providing expertise for the plan but made it clear that decisions of any magnitude will have to be taken but the AIFF alone.
FIFA`s new president Gianni Infantino recently advised the AIFF to safeguard the interests of the traditional I-League clubs during the merger.
The AIFF is currently saddled with the tough task of finding a middle path to incorporate the needs of the clubs and franchises.
The financial disparity between the clubs and franchises along with the number of foreigners to be allowed per team are two of the several disputable issues plaguing the AIFF.
Balancing the guidelines of FIFA and AFC with the interests of corporate franchises have proved to be AIFF`s biggest setback, with no satisfactory solution in sight.
Former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia believed a seven-month league could be a solution to India`s current domestic matches congestion.
"Right now the football calendar is in a difficult situation. Many players are out of action because of the short tenure of ISL and I-League. So a long league of seven months would help in stabilising the structure," he said.
Legendary striker I.M. Vijayan said the new league should incorporate several I-League clubs as it will give opportunity to all top-flight footballers a chance to ply their trade.
Presently due to the scarcity of clubs participating in the I-league and the stipulated eight franchise format of the ISL a large number of players, including some well known ones, have been clubless with their future thrown in the dark.
"There are a lot of players. But due to pull out of clubs like Salgaocar many players are clubless. If the merged league has greater number of clubs then the free players will get a chance to play," Vijayan told this correspondent.
"The new league should also employ AFC`s four foreigner rule rather than the six imports allowed in ISL."