The press conference for the launch of the 2018-19 season of the I-League took place in Delhi on Tuesday and the event was plentiful in its reference to a possible single-league merger with Mohun Bagan and East Bengal heading in the direction of the Indian Super League.
The domestic structure in India has come under scrutiny from FIFA for the two simultaneous top division leagues that take place and the pressure is quietly mounting on the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to restructure the system.
According to a report, co-authored by an AFC and a FIFA delegate, the AIFF is required to restructure the system with one single league of 12 teams from the 2019-20 season, failing which Indian clubs will be banned from continental competition.
East Bengal's Lalrindika Ralte who was representing East Bengal in the launch confirmed his team's entry into the ISL in the next season.
"I heard that East Bengal is going to play in the ISL next season, so this will be our last I-League campaign. We have to do well and hopefully win the title as we could not do that in the last season," Ralte said.
Churchill Brother's presence in the league this season despite being relegated in the last term was also an indication of the future. The AIFF vice president, Subrata Dutta, hinted at the imminent restructuring while addressing questions related to Churchill Brothers.
"Now that the restructuring is going to happen, we thought there was no harm in retaining Churchill Brothers [for this upcoming season] as relegating them would see no representation from the whole of West India," Dutta told the press.
An AIFF official later confirmed to Times of India that the two teams jumping ship to the ISL next season would be the Kolkata giants. He said, "ISL will float the bid documents next month to induct two new teams. In all likelihood, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will pick up the bid documents. I believe this has been done to get the two Kolkata clubs on board. The vacancy in the I-League will be filled up by promoting two teams from the Division-2 championship."
Even the co-owner of Delhi Dynamos believes that the merger is on the cards next season as the 'One City, One Team' clause expires at the end of this season.
"The good thing is I am privy to information and I don't have a problem with it [the merger]. I think the thing that was holding up in the past was that we could not have two teams from the same area but that's expiring after this year so that can help. You already saw Bengaluru come in and that was the first step. If the league didn't want a merger, they wouldn't have let Bengaluru in, I can tell you that," Sharma told indiatimes.in exclusively.
The AFC-FIFA co-authored report also chalks out a roadmap for Indian Football which is in contradiction with the agreement between AIFF and the ISL clubs of a '10-year immunity from relegation'.
Sharma addressed this issue while also showcasing his excitement for potential derby games.
"I mean the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal rivalry is fun. Also, I'm a big fan of the Aizawl story. I also like NEROCA, they're my favourite in I-League. Minerva and we have a derby now and I like that. I think it would be fun and I'm all for relegation-promotion. For me, I can say that because I don't really have a competition in Delhi, Minerva is in Chandigarh but for people in Kolkata, NorthEast and even Kerala, that's a problem. My other co-owners will have their own views about the merger though because they'll lose a lot of their fan base," Sharma said.
While there has been no official confirmation yet, all the indications are that this will be Mohun Bagan and East Bengal's last season in the I-League and the Kolkata giants will thus be very eager to make a triumphant exit. The two teams are slated to square off against each other in the much-anticipated Kolkata Derbies on December 16 and January 27 next year at the Salt Lake Stadium.
The 2018-19 I-League season kicks off on October 26 and will have 11 participating teams with Srinagar-based Real Kashmir FC making their debut having won the second division league last season.