Delhi-based Sudeva FC will be among the teams that will be responding to the All India Football Federation's (AIFF) invitation to accept new clubs from non-I-League cities for the 2020-21 season. FC Bengaluru United (FCBU), who were part of the second division for the last season, have also indicated an interested in bidding.
AIFF's media release on Friday said they would be looking at prospective team owners from "New Delhi, Ranchi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bhopal, Lucknow and Ahmedabad, amongst others" and that the invitation to tender will be available between June 10 and 20, for a non-refundable sum of INR 4 lakh.
ESPN understands that AIFF are looking at only one club to begin with, but might have to alter that depending on how the domestic football calendar shapes up for 2020-21. This is due to the impact of Covid-19, and because of the imminent departure of champions Mohun Bagan, who have merged with Indian Super League (ISL) champions ATK to form one club. AIFF are also understood to be looking at one venue to host the pending final stages of the second division for 2019-20, which were left unfinished when the pandemic broke out in March, to promote another side to the next I-League.
"We have been waiting for this time to come. It has taken us seven years of making our young kids grow up. I hope it goes through, for all the kids who were 10-11 when we started out," Vijay Hakari, co-founder of Sudeva, told ESPN. Sudeva, founded in 2014 by Hakari and Anuj Gupta, played the second division in 2016-17 as well, and are undeterred by the prospect of getting a chance to play the I-League when it has been replaced by the ISL as the top division of the country. "When anything comes your way, and it is good for football, then it is good for everyone. Best thing is it gives a platform for my kids, many of whom come from very humble backgrounds, a chance to exhibit their skills in front of the entire world. Second division doesn't matter. It's a step up, and that's the way everyone should look at it."
This could also open up an avenue for FCBU, who were part of the second division when it came to a halt. "We hope to make a bid for a spot as we believe that we are well placed to participate in the I-League, having performed well in the current 2nd Division I-League, are financially stable, are investing in infrastructure and have a long-term plan. We certainly look to bring Bengaluru back into the I-League on merit or via the direct entry," owner Gaurav Manchanda told ESPN.
A total of 11 teams competed in the I-League in 2019-20, which was left incomplete because of the pandemic, though Bagan had enough to seal the title. With AIFF-backed developmental team Indian Arrows immune from relegation, Aizawl FC were in the last spot ahead of them, but are unlikely to get relegated as the season couldn't be finished.
The new season and its look and feel will depend on how many teams eventually make the cut for the I-League, which hasn't had a direct corporate entry since Gokulam Kerala in 2017-18. AIFF sources also indicated it was too early to predict if having corporate entries would help I-League clubs get greater subsidies for hosting matches, something that had come to an end following the 2017-18 season. For teams that are still keen on playing the I-League, and hoping to eventually start plying their trade in the ISL by the time promotion kicks in 2022-23 onwards, the first step would be to fill up the tender from AIFF and then hope that things go their way in the bidding process.