By bringing in two-time I-League champions Bengaluru FC and Tata Steel into the ISL for the 2017-18 season, the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) and their commercial and marketing partners IMG-Reliance (IMG-R) have in one stroke taken a massive step towards re-drawing the structure of Indian domestic structure.
And though there were two clear winners in Monday's announcement, there was one big loser: the I-League, which is now headed inexorably towards its demise.
The details are yet to be worked out, including how the two AFC competition slots will be allotted to teams competing in the ISL and the I-League. That said, the endorsement of the most successful team in terms of titles across the last four seasons in Indian football in Bengaluru, and of the Tatas, a corporate group that has fielded football teams in Mumbai and run India's first football academy in Jamshedpur since the 1980s, gives the ISL the credibility it has long craved.
Today's announcement does raise several questions. For instance, the impact on the two Kolkata clubs East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, who till as recently as last week were still in discussions with AIFF about the possibility of hopping onto the ISL bus. Have they erred in judgement by letting go of an opportunity to field a team in what could now become the biggest league in the country? There has been a lot of talk about the legacy and rich history of the clubs, which even their biggest critics cannot deny. What value is that likely to hold, though, if they do not feature in the redrawn plans of Indian football?
The idea of holding concurrent leagues is a good one in theory, but how will it play out in practice? Forget the I-League, even the cash-rich ISL teams do not have infrastructure of their own, such as a stadium to conduct matches in regularly. Will there be a separate window within a week that will take care of home games for Chennai City FC, for instance, before and after Chennaiyin FC play their ISL games, possibly over a weekend? And how will fans respond to multiple teams in the same city?
The most important part of the equation will revolve around the players. The smallest operating budget of an ISL team in the first three seasons would probably be about five times of that of the I-League club with the deepest pockets. But then, it must be kept in mind that running an I-League club is a round-the-year exercise, while the ISL has been a competition that has needed the active involvement of funds for five months at most. If the two leagues are to run for an equal length of time, and the ISL teams are to fulfil their commitments towards youth development, community engagement and other licensing criteria, then it will force them to juggle their numbers in a more prudent way than what has happened in the first three seasons.
Will any of the players be available for I-League sides, especially if paychecks and chances of continental participation are more attractive with an ISL team?
And what happens to I-League champions Aizawl FC, who conjured up the most unbelievable title run just a little over six weeks ago? This development could mean that they will have a slot in next year's AFC Champions League playoff, but might struggle to put together a half-decent squad that will be able to compete against Asia's best.
It will be up to Indian football to make the most of this churn, deal with the teething problems that might come as a by-product, and emerge a stronger and more competitive entity.