The first round of the new I-League season came to an end on Sunday and witnessed five excellent matches, which were replete with exciting moments that left fans on the edge of their seats.
While Minerva Punjab and Churchill Brothers played out a goalless draw, the remaining four games saw a total of 12 goals scored as Chennai City FC's Pedro Manzi scored a hat-trick on the opening day against the Indian Arrows while East Bengal's Mexican import Enrique Esqueda and Shillong Lajong's 19-year-old debutant Naorem Mahesh Singh registered a brace apiece.
However, the most heartening numbers from the three days were the attendance figures, as the five home venues - the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium in Coimbatore, Khuman Lampak Main Stadium in Imphal, EMS Stadium in Kozhikode, Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Chandigarh and Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium in Shillong, all saw impressive turnouts.
The season opener in Tamil Nadu on Friday saw an audience of 8,262 as the host Chennai City FC hosted Indian Arrows, with the match ending 4-1 in favour of the home side. Saturday witnessed encouraging numbers as well as the match between Neroca FC and East Bengal, which finished in a 2-0 win for the Red and Golds , saw 26,412 fans throng the stands, which became a virtual sea of orange.
The other match of the day saw the highest attendance among the five fixtures as 28,437 fans witnessed host Gokulam Kerala FC play out a exciting 1-1 draw against the Calcutta Football League champion Mohun Bagan. The figure was also the maximum so far for a Gokulam home match in the I-League, which is an encouraging sign.
On Sunday, defending champion Minerva saw 8,591 fans fill in the stands for its stalemate against Churchill. The club owner Ranjit Bajaj tweeted, "First da positives 4m our season opener @ILeagueOfficial @minervapunjabfc 1.The largest turn out in the 3 year history of minerva punjab fc in Ludhiana / Chandigarh or Panchkula (2nd div incld)- so thank you soooo much Panchkula and Chandigarh #chakdittephatte 8591 2 pm match."
The final match, a NorthEast derby played in Meghalaya, featured 14,697 fans who saw Shillong Lajong record a memorable 2-1 win against Aizawl FC. Naorem Mahesh Singh, the hero of the match for Alison Kharsyntiew's men, was quoted as saying, "Our fans are the best! They cheered for us throughout the match and that gave us more confidence to play to the best of our abilities."
Incidentally, apart from Coimbatore, every other venue which hosted a game in the first game week of I-League 2018-19 has seen a significant rise in the footfall. Defending Champion Minerva Punjab FC’s first match in the previous season was attended by 5,995 at the Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Panchkula. On the other hand, Kozhikode (25,841), Imphal (27,633) and Shillong (6,989) have witnessed fewer spectators in the first game week of the previous edition of the I-League.
According to Mr. Sunando Dhar, CEO, I-League, the Hero I-League has seen an ‘encouraging’ start and he believes that every team will build on this.
“It’s heartening to see an encouraging start to the Hero I-League this season. We have to congratulate the clubs for the marketing done by them. They have done a splendid work so far and I’m sure, every team will build on this to make this edition of Hero I-League another successful one.”
The second round of fixtures of the 2018-19 I-League gets underway on Wednesday and will see four clubs from the first week - NEROCA, Minerva Punjab, Shillong Lajong and Chennai City play hosts yet again. On Saturday, Mohun Bagan will play its first home match, hosting Aizawl FC at the iconic Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.