The I-League is once again heading to its final day. Given the way the previous four seasons have panned out, it should not come as a surprise.
Quess East Bengal will feel relief, for it did look like Chennai City would drop the shoulders and give their closest rivals the slip, having thoroughly bested the Red and Golds over two legs.
Churchill Brothers had slipped out of title contention, but had their say. Willis Plaza, joint top scorer with 20 goals did his old team a favour as Chennai City were stopped 3-2. In Imphal, Neroca had mustered the might to come from three goals down to earn a point against the table toppers.
You have got to hand it to the I-League. In the face of adversity, it has produced another spectacle.
Stories from all four corners
The top five teams in the I-League hail from Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Goa, Jammu & Kashmir, and Manipur, the four corners of the country well and truly represented. These are also the places where the sport witnesses crowds on weekday afternoons, in the blazing sun and in freezing climates.
The push towards an urban-centric television audiences is a relatively new one in the rich history of Indian football, one that ignores the basic principles of sport, that of catering to the in-stadia audiences first. The I-League has received precious little coverage in its second half, with the end of the division nearer than before. On the rare occasion when it has, the quality has neared home video standards.
The division’s constituents continue to make a mockery of history and purchasing power. Just ask Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Those two may as well go around with the word ‘legacy’ stamped before their names, as the ‘lesser lights’ have shown scant regard for the Old Kolkata Club reputation.
If this is to be the I-League’s last season, it’s good to remember that a team from Mizoram scripted its greatest-ever triumph. Aizawl triumphed the Kolkata duo and Bengaluru FC in their last I-League season, all at a fraction of the budget. This was a state where football had received a reboot five years prior to the win, in 2012.
The I-League continues to obstinately churn out these stories. If it had arms and legs, the I-League could have been a best-selling novelist.
Up and down, twists and turns
It seems befitting that the champions-elect Chennai City should face last season’s victors Minerva Punjab on the final day. The Punjabi Lions had written their own little chapter last year, with the final top four all having a chance to nick it on that fateful day.
The loss at Fatorda was Chennai’s third of the season, but they stuck to their largely entertaining selves even at this crucial juncture. Theirs has been a jerky ride to the podium decider, starting out strongly before being pegged back and repeating the cycle for a good measure. Their Spanish contingent have scored 37 of their 45 goals and Akbar Nawas knows that a point will do on Saturday.
East Bengal’s Indian players have proved effective. Their Spanish contingent hasn’t been as lethal as Chennai’s, but Jobby Justin and Laldanmawia Ralte have produced the goods to keep them within touching distance of CCFC. The Red and Golds have not convinced at all times, but have done enough to keep the race alive with 2-1 and 1-0 victories in New Delhi and Panchkula respectively.
Real Kashmir, in the hunt for all but two rounds, have been the most intriguing of all teams, on and off the field. Remarkable back story aside, their football with an unusual collection of players has been curious to watch, as has their spirit. Their belief has never more evident, as witnessed in their 2-1 loss to East Bengal, after they nicked a goal, having played a man short for almost 70 minutes.
Their bruising style has added another element to the I-League smorgasbord and will pose a problem to any Indian Super League side they face in the Super Cup.
Churchill and Neroca have also played their part in the season, the latter’s fan base in Imphal as hostile and passionate as ever, having brought into the idea of following a football club, long before the advent of orchestrated social media campaigns with unusually long hashtags.
Bagan’s fall from pre-season favourites to a 3-1 loss at the hands of the Indian Arrows has been comical to watch and a timely reminder of how mismanaged a club, a long-standing institution at that, can be.
As things stand, off-field power struggles, IMG-R’s intent to put them in the ISL and sponsorship troubles have proved to be a huge distraction, so much so that it seems to have sidelined any intent to win titles or even matches. The Maroon and Greens have been hapless and another season has collapsed right on their heads.
The Arrows, Aizawl and Shillong Lajong have each competed with young squads and it remains to be seen whether the latter will survive relegation. Lajong, who can only finish last, can draw comfort though in the fact they may not be the only ones to be relegated and that they could take seven other I-League clubs down with them.
It is understandably so, as the I-League has once again brought the din to the table. The AIFF is desperately fumbling for the mute button to control the I-League’s hollering. The division though, hanging on for dear life, just refuses to let go.