Gearing up for the ‘last’ I-League

I am delighted that Punjab and Chennai will now have representation in the League. Punjab will always have a special place in my heart because it was at JCT that I spent some really good years and learnt so much and left with a lot of fond memories. As for Chennai City FC, we now have company in the south and you can bank on intense games between us.

Bengaluru FC is all ready to defend its I-League crown.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

That thing they say about time flying by is true to the T. What a whirlwind year this has been! And before I even sit to do a little recap, the 2017 season will catch up with me. But I’ll take my chances anyway!

We, at Bengaluru FC, had a special year in winning the I-League title and then storming into the history books by making it to the final of the AFC Cup, where we fell short at the end.

 

I quickly dived into the ISL season with Mumbai City FC, where we did really well to make it to the semifinals, but were edged out by Kolkata. Like most footballers, I want to win every competition that I’m involved in, but that doesn’t always happen. Nevertheless, it was a year that I will look back on fondly. It’s also taught me so much. I managed the rare luxury of a week-long holiday before joining the BFC camp and I couldn’t have made a better choice than Sikkim for a destination to unwind! As a footballer, I’ve travelled so much, but have never got the chance to explore a place without the prospect of a game looming over my head.

But now that I took this break I was craving for it’s good to be back on the pitch. I even put in a session with the boys and it’s nice to start dusting the rust off given the League is almost upon us.

Contrary to what most people believe, stepping into a tournament as reigning champions doesn’t give you an advantage of any sort. If anything, it makes the task ahead tougher. Every team is doing everything to grab what you have and you’ll need to do a very good job to fend them away. And that is, very simply, going to be the story of the season.

The coach and management have shopped extensively and it’s nice to see the quality of additions to the squad. Harmanjot Khabra, Lenny Rodrigues and Arindam Bhattacharya are all experienced players. Sena Ralte had a good run in the ISL and Mandar Rao Desai is a young, bright prospect with talent in abundance. And we still have a foreign player to sign. The competition within the squad is going to get tougher and it serves a great reminder that no one can take his position for granted.

We had a tremendous run in the AFC Cup, but the I-League is going to be a completely different ball game. The calendar is going to be very tight and that’s where a squad depth will play its part. The midfield players, however, will have big shoes to fill after Alvaro Rubio’s departure. He played only five games for this club, but I cannot begin to tell you the kind of impact he had on the results.

If the proposed merger does come in to effect from next season, this would be the ‘last season’ of the League in its current avatar and it adds that little extra sheen to winning the title. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have always been tough contenders, but we would be stupid to even think of writing off any other team that’s in the fray. Leicester City has taught the football world well.

Speaking about the other teams in the fray, I am delighted that Punjab and Chennai will now have representation in the League. Punjab will always have a special place in my heart because it was at JCT that I spent some really good years and learnt so much and left with a lot of fond memories. As for Chennai City FC, we now have company in the south and you can bank on intense games between us.

I’ve been reading about the additions Minerva and Chennai City have been making to their squads and staff and they seem to be doing more than just a good job in assembling. Both the teams will take the pitch without much fear of failure and that could make them dangerous. I remember when Bengaluru FC played in its debut season, we were so courageous because we had very little to lose and that worked well for us. It’s something we kept building on and I wouldn’t be wrong if I said that we’ve been very successful in a very short time. I wish both the teams luck on this new sojourn, but all the niceties will be forgotten once we come up against each other.

I hope the people of Punjab and Chennai take pride in these teams and come out in big numbers to back them.

I was also really glad to know that Churchill Brothers had been reinstated into the I-League. I’ve won an I-League title with them and though the duration of my stay there was rather negligible, I made some great friends. Also, the thought of no team from Goa in this edition of the I-League was bothering us all, till the news of Churchill’s participation came through.

I will be focusing on our task ahead with the rest of the lads. We’ve always been a hungry side that’s in the reckoning for titles and that doesn’t change a bit. There is the additional task of doing well in the AFC Champions League and the team from Jordan is a very strong one. But our AFC Cup campaign last season has taught us much about ourselves and we hope to keep making the country proud.

But before all of that, it’s going to be about hitting all the right notes at the start to make sure the I-League trophy stays in Bengaluru.

>Read: Impact of the I-League and its future