I-League: Despite changes, teams gear up for new season

After undergoing many changes, the final fixtures of I-League were officially announced on November 19, all of 11 days before the commencement of the league.

Members of Chennai City FC celebrates after winning the I-League at the Nehru Stadium in Coimbatore.   -  S. Siva Saravanan

Chennai City FC earned a thrilling triumph over Minerva Punjab FC to lift its maiden I-League title on March 9. Since then, I-League has undergone a world of change.

In the six months that followed, the I-League has been dethroned from its status as the top division of Indian football and the league's winner will now only compete in the AFC Cup, as opposed to the AFC Champions League play-offs.

Among the other changes made, in accordance with the roadmap formulated by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in partnership with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL) will form a unified league, complete with promotion and relegation from the 2024-25 season.

Another major development was DSport replacing Star Sports as the official broadcast partner of the I-League. The AIFF has signed a three-year deal with DSport that will see it telecast the matches with an eight-camera setup.

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However, the one factor that led to plenty of confusion was the delayed announcement of the I-League fixtures. The league was initially scheduled to begin in early November but was postponed to make room to inculcate the AIFF-AFC roadmap recommendations. The starting of the league was further delayed as the AIFF continued to have negotiations with broadcasters before zeroing down on Dsport.

The final fixtures were officially announced on November 19, all of 11 days before the commencement of the league.

“It (the delay) has affected us big time. Considering they gave us the fixtures three weeks prior (to the season starting), costs have gone up for travel during the festive season. Sponsors have taken a big hit. Whoever we approached, they asked where it (the matches) will be telecast and where are the fixtures,” said defending champion Chennai City FC's owner Rohit Ramesh.

Punjab FC owner Ranjit Bajaj said the delay on fixtures was both a boon and a bane: “It worked both ways. The delayed fixtures allowed us to have a longer pre-season, perhaps the longest we have had before an I-League season. It allowed us to learn the team better and has helped us come together ahead of the season.”

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Costly Affair

However, on the flip side, it also meant the club had to shell out more on player salaries and flight tickets. Punjab FC is scheduled to play Aizawl FC on December 20 and Bajaj said the festive season meant flight prices were very high. “Each ticket is costing us around 30,000 and we are a total team of 30. We'll be spending 9 lakhs on just travel,” he stated.

Gokulam Kerala owner V.C. Praveen, too, echoed similar logistical concerns ."We are paying the price for it (delay in fixtures announcement). We are away to Real Kashmir (December 12) before travelling to Kolkata (Mohun Bagan on December 15). We will be shelling out over 13,000 per ticket," said Praveen.

On I-League being relegated to a second division status ahead of the new season, Praveen said it was 'all about the mindset'.

"One change is the fact that we only have AFC Cup slot now. And this could be the last year we have genuine good competition since we could lose out two clubs to the ISL next year," he said.

Real Kashmir FC players during a practice session.   -  PTI

 

Real Kashmir, which finished a creditable third in its maiden I-League appearance last year, also had the advantage of an elaborate pre-season. The curfew imposed in Kashmir meant the club couldn't travel much, but the side made the most of with an intricate training program.

Real Kashmir's co-owner Shamim Meraj his club is looking to go one step further this year.“I think we had the longest pre-season in the history of football! (laughs) We have been training for the last four months and had a terrific pre-season. Last year was very good for us and this year we want to do better, nothing less than a top-3 finish would be satisfactory for us,” he said.

“We played the Durand Cup and played almost every ISL club and had a host of good results. Our squad is better and tighter and compact. We had some trouble up front and this year we have tried to address that. We have had four months of training, so now its time for all of that to come together,” he added.

Kolkata giant Mohun Bagan's senior official Debashish Dutta said the AIFF has taken efforts to sort out the grievances of the I-League clubs and that the clubs must now support the Federation.

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“We fought against AIFF, did not play the Super Cup and as a result of that things have happened. The I-league will be merged with ISL in a set timeframe and we have a new broadcaster, which is what we wanted. We have fought a lot and the AIFF and FSDL are working hard to make I-League in a good way and I believe all the clubs must support them,” he said.

Talking about his side's chances, he said: “Whenever Mohun Bagan plays, it plays only for the championship. Our preparations have been good and we have had no issues. We had a pre-season camp in Goa and then played in the Durand Cup and Calcutta Football League and finished runner-up in both. We also played in the Sheikh Kamal International Club Cup in Dhaka and reached the semifinal. We have played a lot of matches and are hopeful of a good result this year.”

The new season also offers Bagan's cross-town rival East Bengal to establish itself as one of the prominent clubs in India. EB is yet to win the I-League and hasn't won a league title in 15 years and finished second on the table a point behind Chennai City.

Despite being left in the wayside by ISL, I-League has managed to retain the interest of supporters by providing level-playing competition. The last three seasons has seen first-time champions -- Aizawl, Punjab and Chennai City overcoming heavyweights Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Churchill Brothers -- with the title being decided on the final day.

With Gokulam firing strong in pre-season, the new season promises more exciting competition.

(With inputs from Aashin Prasad and Amitabha Das Sharma)

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