The new season of the I-League, India’s second division in domestic football, will see the introduction of two clubs, Namdhari FC and Inter Kashi, in the upcoming season but its format will remain the same.
The decision, which was taken by the All India Football Federation’s League Committee through a virtual conference on Friday, also saw a slight change in the foreigner rule.
The 2023-24 season will have 13 clubs (subject to fulfilment of the Club Licensing process) in action, one more than last season, playing on a home-and-away double round-robin basis.
The tournament will have 156 matches played throughout the season, with each team playing 24 games. Though the league is yet to announce the official dates, Sportstar can confirm that the league will start in October.
The club finishing at the top of the table at the end of the league will be declared champion and will be eligible for promotion to the Indian Super League (ISL) 2024-25 provided it fulfils the club-licensing criteria.
“The new I-League season will see more teams than the previous season and the prospect of qualifying for the Indian Super League (ISL) will definitely make the league more competitive,” Lalnghinglova Hmar, the league’s chairman, told Sportstar.
“We have stuck to the previous format (round-robin) because it has been tried and tested and with two new teams, the competition will only get better.”
Last season’s champion Punjab FC (formerly called RoundGlass Punjab FC) has already been promoted to the ISL.
The two relegated sides from I-League 2022-23 - Mumbai Kenkre FC and Sudeva Delhi FC - have been replaced by Delhi FC and Shillong Lajong FC from I-League 2, the third division of Indian football.
The AIFF, in its Annual General Body Meeting in Bengaluru last month, had approved five bids for corporate entry into the I-League.
YMS Finance Pvt Ltd from Kolkata, Namdhari Seeds Pvt Ltd from Punjab, Nimida United Sports Development Pvt Ltd from Bengaluru, Concatenate Advest Advisory Pvt Ltd from Delhi and Bunkerhill Pvt Ltd from Gurugram had all placed bids and all were approved by the Federation.
However, on Friday, only two were announced as I-League clubs – one by YMS Finance Pvt Ltd (Inter Kashi) and the other by Namdhari Seeds Pvt Ltd (Namdhari FC).
“In the meeting (last month), we had just approved the bids. But three of them eventually withdrew their bids and so we announced the two clubs in the league,” Shaji Prabhakaran, the general secretary of the AIFF, told Sportstar.
Since India lost its AFC competition spot for the upcoming season in May 2023 due to its low coefficient ranking among Asian countries, it is no longer mandatory for Indian clubs to have at least one foreigner from an Asian country at any point on the field.
For the upcoming season, the I-League clubs are allowed to register a maximum of five foreign players, with not more than three allowed on the field at one time.
No foreigners will be allowed in the I-League second division.
Committee chairperson Mr Hmar said, “Earlier, we did not have a properly-tiered league structure, but that has changed. Now, the ISL, the I-League, Second Division and Third Division are all connected with each other to create a strong league structure.”
For the newly-formed 3rd Division League, nine state FAs fulfilled the criteria for nominating teams - Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.
From Kerala, KPL 2022-23 Champions Kerala United (Sheffiled United Group) is nominated.
The following clubs were nominated for the 3rd Division League by nine state FAs, which complied with the nomination criteria:Chhattisgarh FA: RKM Football Academy and New Friends Club DantewadaFootball Delhi: Vatika FC and Garhwal FCGoa FA: Dempo SC and Sporting Clube de GoaGujarat SFA: Baroda FA and ARA FCKarnataka SFA: Sporting Club Bengaluru and Kickstart FCPunjab FA: International Football Club Phagwara, Doaba United FCMadhya Pradesh FA: Lake City FCRajasthan FA: Jaipur Elite FCWIFA (Maharashtra): Millat FC
The League Committee entrusted the responsibility of defining the format of the 3rd Division League to the AIFF Secretariat.
Meanwhile, nominations received from 10 other states will be confirmed after following certain due diligence as instructed by the League Committee. The state FAs are: All Manipur FA, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu FA, Kerala FA, Pondicherry FA, Sikkim FA, Uttar Pradesh FA, Assam FA, FA of Odisha, Telangana FA and IFA (West Bengal).