The I-League is back, but it’s not the same. Not just because it will be played across four venues in Kolkata and inside a bio-secure bubble, but because in its second year as Indian football’s second-tier competition, it is left further poorer after the departure of Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Their presence gave the competition added significance despite the loss of its premier status.

For a second-tier league, the main tangible reward is also missing. There is no promotion to the top tier for the winners even as the threat of relegation remains. The promotion to the ISL will only kick in from the 2022-’23 campaign.

The All India Football Federation thus in a special arrangement with AFC has added the extra incentive of an AFC Cup group stage slot for the I-League champions, a privilege otherwise offered only to the runner-up in the league stage of ISL.

As for the financial rewards, the prize money worth Rs 2.25 crore for the top four teams is a lot lesser than what a team spends on its operations on average. The clubs though would get some relief from the fact that the costs incurred by them this season would be considerably lesser than usual with the competition happening only in one city and AIFF bearing the costs of the travel and accommodation.

Two new teams – Sudeva FC from new Delhi and Mohammedan Sporting from Kolkata – have been added to replace Mohun Bagan and East Bengal with Mohammedan, who have a big following of their own adding a bit of fanfare. But with matches being played behind closed doors this season, it will hardly make much of a difference.

New format

The AIFF deserves credit for getting the tournament up and running given the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has led to the competition adopting an unusual and slightly confusing format this season.

To start with, all teams will play each other once across four venues in Kolkata and after ten rounds of games when every team would have faced the others at least once, the pool will be split into two. The top six teams will fight for the title in the championship stage and the bottom five will fight to stay in the division in the relegation stage. Only one team will drop out from the I-League this season.

The points accumulated by the teams in the first phase will be carried forward to these next stages where the teams will face the other sides in their respective groups once again before the season concludes.

“The circumstances are obviously a little different this season due to the various Covid-19 restrictions. That is why we felt that bringing in such a format will not only give the teams a suitable number of matches but also keep a low-risk factor for the players and officials in the I-League,” AIFF Leagues CEO Sunando Dhar told reporters on Thursday.

Read: Indian football: Fans’ return to the stadium, age-group leagues unlikely in near future

No clear favourites?

With Mohun Bagan and East Bengal’s departure, it’s an even more level-playing field in the I-League this season. Although in recent times, the Kolkata giants didn’t really translate their off-field superiority on the pitch, the two clubs were miles ahead of the rest when it came to their budgets.

But this year, it’s a much more open season with no clear favourites. Chennai City FC, RoundGlass Punjab and Aizawl FC who have all won the competition in recent years would feel their experience of doing it before would give them an edge.

“I have played for Aizawl FC previously as well but this time, it’s a new season and a new team. We are a young side. We have been practising well in pre-season and as a team, we are high on confidence ahead of the new season. I want to win the title this year as it will mean a lot to the club, to the people and for us as a team,” said Aizawl FC midfielder Brandon Vanlalremdika.

Read: Aizawl FC’s incredible I-League triumph in 2017 was a breath of fresh air for Indian football

But even newcomers Mohammedan Sporting who won promotion to the I-League this year are not setting a low bar for themselves.

“We are aiming to be champions and we are preparing hard and facing a lot of challenges to make our dream come true. Mohammedan SC always plays to win and our eyes are set on the prize,” said Sankarlal Chakraborty, the club’s technical director.

There is a case for newly promoted clubs to dream big in the I-League as Aizawl FC, Punjab FC and Chennai City showed by winning the competition after having earned promotion from the Second Division League.

With the likes of Real Kashmir, Gokulam Kerala, NEROCA, TRAU and Churchill Brothers completing the set, there’s no shortage of teams who have experience of playing in the competition and thus a closely-fought competition is on the cards again, especially with no home advantage.

A breeding ground for new talent?

The I-League has been a breeding ground for young Indian talent. Most players who are making their mark in the ISL in the last two years have come through the I-League. With the 3+1 foreign player rule now in place, expect Indian players to get plenty of chances.

Apart from Indian Arrows, which is AIFF’s developmental team, newcomers Sudeva FC have decided to field an all-Indian team in order to give chance to local players. In addition, only six out of the eleven teams have a full quota of foreign players as things stand and thus most teams would rely heavily on Indian talent.

“Being an all Indian side, everyone gets game time and everyone gets an equal opportunity to perform. During the course of the season, we have to take baby steps and keep working and learning from our mistakes,” Sudeva FC midfielder Ansh Gupta said ahead of the season.

Will I-League retain its old charm?

The I-League lacks the glamour of the ISL but in the last few seasons has carried a charm of its own thanks to close title races, intense relegation battles and young clubs upsetting the pecking order to claim the big prize.

For the participating teams, most of which are new clubs looking to plant their feet in Indian football, the I-League still remains an important platform. With the prospect of promotion to the ISL just a year away at the end of the season, teams would use this season to test themselves and thus be in a better shape to have a go at the promotion slot.

So as the I-League begins within a bubble at Kolkata, devoid of its status and prestige, not all is lost.

Here are the fixtures for the 2021-’22 season: