Despite the loss of status, I-League remains special to players

Players in the I-League this year insisted that the level of football is as high as anywhere else and it was the performance on field that mattered most.

At a time when the glamorous Indian Super League is the preferred destination for most footballers and has been ordained the top division competition in the country, there are some who have opted to ply their trade in the I-League instead, insisting the level of football was as high as anywhere else and it was the performance on field that mattered most.

Spaniard Pedro Manzi, who first came to India last year and led the title charge for eventual champion Chennai City FC in the previous edition, is one of them. With an incredible 21 goals in 18 matches, the 31-year old remains the lynchpin of the team’s attack and is more than happy to continue with the side.

“I had some offers to go to ISL but finally decided to stay (at Chennai City FC). I am very happy to stay and play for Chennai, this season we have to defend our title and I am the captain. Last season we played very good football. This season we have a younger and inexperienced team. It is not going to be easy,” he said on the sidelines of the launch of the 13th edition of the erstwhile premier competition here on Thursday.

At the other end of the spectrum is Anwar Ali, at 35 one of the seniormost players in the side with a wealth of experience at all levels to go with it. Having started his professional career with the now-defunct JCT, it is ‘homecoming’ for the lanky defender this season, having joined Punjab FC.

“It feels like coming home after more than 10 years abroad, feels absolutely special. I-League will always have a special place in my heart. It’s the same as when I first joined JCT, maybe even more than that. The staff, coach, owners everyone makes you feel so comfortable, that’s something I have felt now after JCT,” Anwar said.

Punjab won the title in its maiden year in 2017-18, in its former Minerva avatar, setting the ground for more debutant clubs to dream big and opening the doors for Chennai to repeat the feat. “Yes a benchmark has already been set. There is experience that comes with age and also with playing a lot. After that, there is a certain expectation wherever you go. Here too I have a defined role as a senior player, to help juniors as much as possible and lead by example,” Anwar added.

On his part, Manzi singled out his last goal in the season finale against Minerva FC, which Chennai won to edge past East Bengal by a single point to clinch the title. “That was the most crucial because it was important for us to win that game,” he said.

The 11-team I-League would kick off on November 30 between Mohun Bagan and Aizawl FC. Tiddim Road Athletic Union (TRAU FC) would make its debut as winner of the 2nd division last season.

The clubs: Chennai City, Punjab FC, Aizawl FC, NEROCA, TRAU, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Gokulam Kerala, Churchill Brothers, Indian Arrows, Real Kashmir.

Prize money: Winner: 1 Crore; runner up: 60 lakh; 3rd place: 40 lakh; 4th place: 25 lakh.