• Ritwik Khanna

A Starter Course in Indian Football

The Indian football ecosystem can be very complicated, especially for someone who has just dipped their toes into the sport. The country faced an unprecedented problem in the past few years with two parallel leagues running in the country which has since been resolved. Here’s a simplified look at the major tournaments in Indian football


Graphic by Siddhant Agrawal and Shashwat Shivhare

  • Indian Super League (ISL) - A franchise based league that started in 2014 is now the premier football league in the country. The format of the tournament is a round-robin phase with 10 teams followed by a semi-final and final between the top four teams. ISL was supposed to integrate two teams from the I-league from the 2020-21 season but that plan has recently been scrapped by the organisers. The winner of the league phase goes to the AFC Champions League group stage while the winner of the playoffs goes to the AFC Cup qualifying round


  • I-League - The National Football League which began in 1996 was remodeled as the I-league in 2007 and was the country’s premier league up until the 2019-20 season. The format is a round robin league with no playoffs. The bottom team gets relegated to the 2nd division I-league while the winner gets entry into the AFC Cup group stage. According to AIFF’s proposed roadmap, I-league winners will get entry into the ISL without a franchise fee in season 2022/23 and 2023/24 as an attempt to merge the two leagues with ISL on top


  • 2nd division I-league - The second tier of the I-league, the 2nd division provides clubs with a shot at promotion into the I-league. The teams are divided into groups across the country and the top two teams from each group qualify to the national stage wherein a playoff decides the promoted team. Several reserve teams of ISL clubs feature in this division but they are not allowed to qualify for the national stage even if they finish in the top two in their respective groups


  • Super Cup - The successor to the Federation Cup, the Super Cup features all the teams from the I-league and ISL and some from the second division. The format followed is a knockout tournament wherein the top six teams each from ISL and I-league are entered into the main draw while the remaining teams from the top divisions along with the top seven second division clubs have to go through a qualifying phase which results in a 16 team main draw


  • Durand Cup - One of the oldest football tournaments in the world, the Durand Cup began in 1888 and was the most prestigious tournament for clubs in the country for most of the twentieth century. Durand Cup is a knockout style cup competition which can be paralleled to England’s FA Cup. The major difference between the Durand Cup and Super Cup is that the latter involves armed forces teams and more smaller clubs in the country


  • IFA Shield - Conducted by West Bengal’s football federation, Indian Football Association (IFA), the tournament started in 1893 and has been a permanent fixture in the football calendar since. It was transformed to a youth U19 level tournament in 2015 post the emergence of the ISL. The IFA Shield final in 1911 was host to arguably the most symbolic victory in Indian football when Mohun Bagan defeated East Yorkshire Regiment becoming the first Indian club to win it


  • Santosh Trophy - Santosh Trophy is an inter-state and government institutions tournament which often serves as a feeder and scouting opportunity for big clubs. 31 teams take part in the tournament which features a preliminary phase where teams are divided into groups and the qualifying teams play it out in the tournament proper. The tournament also has a caveat that each team must have at least five U23 players


  • Subroto Cup - Subroto Cup is the world’s biggest youth football tournament which serves as a breeding ground for the young Indian footballers. School teams participate at the district, division and state level to qualify for the nationals. The national level also includes youth I-league teams, IPSC winners, and some other special status teams


  • State Leagues - A large number of state associations hold competitions within their jurisdiction with the most notable being Goa and West Bengal. Some associations choose to nominate the state league winners for the 2nd division I-league


  • Youth I-leagues - AIFF conducts I-league at the U13, U15, and U18 level. The tournament is divided into a regional preliminary group phase and a national phase which is further divided into a pool round and a playoff for the trophy

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