The second division of the I-League 2017 kicks off today at the Barasat Stadium with Southern Samity hosting NEROCA FC.
The visitors, all the way from Imphal, Manipur have made it to the second round despite the presence of an economic blockade in the state for more than four months. In the first phase of the league, these two sides had met twice within the span of four weeks.
NEROCA had won both the games 1-0 and had finished top of their four-team group, a point ahead of Southern Samity. The rise of the Manipuris has provided a huge fillip to the sport in the state, and a win may mean they play alongside their Northeastern rivals next year, Mizoram’s Aizawl FC and Meghalaya’s Shillong Lajong.
With the likes of Indian international Arata Izumi in their ranks, this could be the year that they make the step up to the big league. With Biren Singh, a former footballer becoming the chief minister of the state recently, neutrals will be eager to see how the team from Imphal get along in their quest to reach the top division.
Another team providing a massive boost for football in their region are Fateh Hyderabad FC. Owner Yogesh Maurya and co-owner Tom Byer have clearly outlined their plans for a long-term vision of success but are not doing too shabbily in this year’s senior leagues.
Fateh are the only team yet to lose a game in this year’s second division, winning three and drawing three of their other games to top their zone, ahead of Mumbai’s Kenkre and Bengaluru’s Ozone FC.
Kenkre are another symbol of Maharashtra’s growing influence in India’s footballing ecosystem and while Mumbai FC may be in a spot of bother, their city rivals will attempt to add to the number of teams from the state who have already played top-tier club football.
Intriguingly, there were two teams from Kashmir which contested the league’s initial stages this time. It was Lonestar Kashmir which came tops in a tightly-contested zone just edging Delhi United and qualifying for the final stages.
Although Delhi United will join them, Real Kashmir FC had given them a scare, finishing tied on points with the team from the capital but losing out on goal difference.
Currently, Minerva Punjab FC are the only team from the northern part of India contesting the I-League. The elevation of Lonestar could do wonders for the sport in a region which has a huge passion for the game but lacks in facilities and infrastructure.
Incidentally, Minerva were also the runners-up of last year’s second division and were eligible for direct entry after champions Dempo pulled out of this year’s league, stating uncertainty. The Ranjit Bajaj-owned team were then granted corporate entry into the league.
With the situation around the two leagues creating uncertainty for all these clubs, one thing is for sure: the team winning the second division can be satisfied with the fact that they took on all comers, from different regions and beat them to what will be a deserved title.