Come this Saturday, the top-division football league of India will be kicking off once again for what will be the 20th edition of the competition. Introduced in 1996 amid much fanfare and rechristened in 2007, this is expected to be last time the I-League will be organised in its current format, with a proposed merger with its more glamorous step-sister, the Indian Super League, waiting on the fringes.
Ten teams will be fighting for the bragging rights, facing each other twice over the course of the next four months. Even though the tournament has lost much of its gloss in its late teens, the stakes are high as the top two teams get to feature in the continental level Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup. However, over the last few months and especially after the Goan clubs decided to pull out, it has hogged the limelight more due to non-footballing reasons.
Many of the long-standing fans of local club football have been very vocal, and justifiably so, about the treatment dished out by the All India Football Federation to the I-League clubs, which were operating for years in an eco-system where the governing body seemed like the most disinterested entity. Now with AIFF hinting once again that a few more of them need to be sacrificed to accelerate the nation’s progress in the game, the discussion has largely been reduced to false binaries, i.e. an I-League vs ISL narrative.
While the I-League clubs still hold the moral high ground in this context, a competitive league with an attractive brand of football could have made their claim stronger. However, in reality, most of them look criminally under-prepared. With all the teams allowed to field four foreigners, only DSK Shivajians have had a proper pre-season with all overseas players available, while there are teams like Mumbai FC who will have to use an all-Indian squad for the first encounter. Even the big guns like Bengaluru FC, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan didn’t have all their foreigners available in the practice session a couple of days before their opening fixtures.
Talking about lack of preparation, the newbies Churchill Brothers, Chennai City FC and Minerva Punjab are the biggest victims, since their participation was confirmed only last month. By then, most of the star footballers had landed up at some other I-League club. Churchill, who had lifted the silverware back in 2013, didn’t have their head coach available till Wednesday, while Chennai City didn’t manage to announce their squad till Thursday.
Will new cities bring renewed interest?
With hurried signings and no proper pre-season practice, the competition may get off to a slow start. The profiles of overseas players have dipped significantly, which is another worrying sign for a competition that relied heavily on a handful of seasoned foreigners to draw crowds. Many of the African footballers roped in by the clubs were regulars of the Calcutta Football League and it will be interesting to see whether they can elevate themselves to the level of the top-flight contest.
The best thing about this edition is the pan-Indian presence of teams with nine states being represented by 10 outfits. This is the first time only a single team from Goa will be participating, but that will hopefully be offset if football fans in Chennai and Ludhiana start filling the stands. As the success of Bengaluru FC and the ISL franchises have shown, there is a large potential fan-base that can be tapped into, but it will be a stern test for the managements of Chennai and Minerva to persuade locals in supporting their teams.
Clear daylight between top three and chasing pack
Last year, there were two clear clusters among the nine participants. Bengaluru FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal were vying for the top spot, while the other six teams were involved in the relegation battle. The situation will be quite similar this time too and Shillong Lajong, Churchill, Aizawl FC and Mumbai FC will fight to avoid the drop as the other three teams – DSK Shivajians, Chennai City and Minerva Punjab are immune from relegation for entering through the corporate quota.
After becoming the first Indian club to make it to the AFC Cup final, Bengaluru will be eager to win their third title in four campaigns, while Mohun Bagan will also fight to secure their second title in three years.
However, with both these teams also set to have a packed schedule due to their AFC Cup involvement, East Bengal can finally hope to end their drought by becoming the national champions for the first time since 2004. It will be a tactical battle among three coaches coming from three very different backgrounds – former Barcelona assistant coach Albert Roca, former Hull City Development coach Trevor James Morgan and former India U-16 coach Sanjoy Sen.
For a competition that seems to be involved in a futile fight for its existence, the impending I-League doesn’t look to be in the best shape. There has been near-zero marketing and the telecast is expected to be shoddy once again. Despite everything, close to 250 Indian footballers will be sweating it out for glory in the next few months and that should be reason enough for football aficionados to follow the I-League closely.
Atanu Mitra has been covering Indian football for more than four years. He tweets @Atanu00.