I-League to kick off on Saturday

These are testing times for Indian football, but there is hope that the administration will be able to tide over the difficulties.

I-League CEO Sunanda Dhar (extreme right, front row) with representatives of the League teams.   -  Special Arrangement

Bengaluru FC coach Ashley Westwood, who was also a commentator during the Indian Super League, refused to be drawn into the ISL v I-League debate.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

The glitz and glamour of the Indian Super League (ISL) is over, but the season has just begun for the Indian football players. The I-League, which kicks off on January 9 with champions Mohun Bagan taking on newcomers Aizwal in Kolkata, is still the ‘bread and butter’ league for most footballers in the country. Four gruelling months of football await the players, some of whom will not even get time to rest, following the ISL and the SAFF Cup.

The I-League has been in the news for the wrong reasons lately. Three teams — Pune FC, Bharat FC and Royal Wahingdoh — pulled out this season with DSK Shivajians being brought in as the only replacement.

The Goa-based Dempo FC, one of the most succesfull football clubs in recent history, got relegated last season and will be replaced in the top divison by Mizoram's Aizawl FC.

I-League CEO Sunanda Dhar is not too concerned about the teams dropping out, but he admitted that these are ‘testing times’ for Indian football. “We are at the crossroads with the ISL and I-league, but it was our decision to stick to nine teams this season. Corporates are showing interest and we did receive a good bid from Bengaluru, but our rules don’t allow to have more than one corporate team from the same city.”

A reformed I-League

Dhar said that the League would concentrate on marketing and publicity this year. “We are trying to widen our reach by partnering with the media, especially through promo videos and a good presence in the digital media. Our budget is limited, but we are also trying to come to an agreement with sports data management company Opta Sports.”

In 2015 AIFF finally found some support online with social media platforms such as Twitter buzzing with conversations on Indian football and the move by I-League to tap into the digital medium will come as a positive news for fans. Though the number of matches have reduced due to teams backing out, football-hungry India will also get to watch the Federation Cup matches on TV in 2016 once the I-League gets over.

Indian national player Syed Rahim Nabi echoed the same ideas as Dhar’s, of the need to market the league well within the nation. “Packaging has become a major component in sports these days and I-League has to ensure that it is attractive to the young football audience.”

The midfielder also stressed on the importance of the League, which according to him is still the primary source of unearthing talent. “For most of us, I-league gave an opportunity to make a career out of football. It is more closer to the league formats played abroad and I sincerely hope the number of teams are increased from nine to somewhere around 18.” Though Nabi is yet to find a team for the coming season, he is quite confident that he will find one come mid-January.

Transfers galore

As expected, the transfer season has been lively, with the teams trying to sign up the good players that are available. The situation has been accentuated with Bharat FC, Pune FC and Royal Wahingdoh players all looking for a possible path back into first division football.

One such player, who has been signed up by Mumbai FC, is Arata Izumi, who excelled for Atletico de Kolkata in the recent ISL. The Japanese-born midfielder was the captain of the now disbanded Pune FC. He expressed how Pune will always be special, considering he was with the team from its inception, but now his focus is on winning the I-League with Mumbai.

Defending champions Mohun Bagan signed Bharat FC forward Subhash Singh and the relegated Dempo’s speedy midfielder Lenny Rodrigues. Their rivals East Bengal bolstered their squad by signing goalkeeper Rehenesh T. P. and winger Sanju Pradhan from NorthEast United. More transfers are expected with the period coming to an end soon.

Too much football?

Heading to the I-League, one of the most talked about topics has been the fitness of the players who recently completed a gruelling three-month season. Stars Sandesh Jhingan, Cavin Lobo, Anas Edathodika and Robin Singh are struggling with injuries that may rule them out of the opening weekend.

Rahim Nabi agreed that players who played a lot of games in the ISL might struggle during the I-League. “The problem is that we play some of the I-League matches at 4 in the evening, under the sun.

“And that too in the summers. It’s a more challenging task than ISL which is played in favourable conditions.”

Bengaluru FC coach Ashley Westwood, who was also a commentator during the Indian Super League, refused to be drawn into the ISL v I-League debate. “The games (ISL) were good, but now I am looking forward to start working with the players again, bringing them back to our system and putting on a good performance in the I- League.”

Westwood was unsure about striker Robin Singh’s condition after he picked up an injury in the SAFF Cup match against Nepal, but the manager, who is one among the three foreign coaches to have won the I-League, said he is happy with his 26-man squad, which includes on-loan goalie Amrinder Singh and two other ’keepers.

Let’s football

The future of I-League may still be in doubt, with the ever-rising popularity of the Indian Super League, overshadowing what was till two years back, India’s most important football league. Technically, it still is — I-League clubs have the chance to play in the Continental Championship. But the doubts haven’t dented the spirit of the nine teams, who will all be vying for the top spot.

We said it a lot during the last three months, but it is only fair to say “come on India, let’s football.”

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