10th edition of I-League launched

the All India Football Federation launched the 10th edition of the latter here on Tuesday, adding two new teams, showcasing some of the best players in India. With Hero Motocorp on board as the title sponsor for this season, the I-League would see a team each from Punjab and Chennai — Minerva FC and Chennai City FC respectively – making their debut.

(Left to right) : Manandeep Singh (Minerva FC), Rohmingthanga (Aizawl FC), Chinglensana (Shillong Lajong FC), Mahtab Hossain (East Bengal), Sunil CHetri (Bengaluru FC), Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Yuka Katsumi (Mohun Bagan), Subrata Paul (DSK Shivajians), Steven Dias (Mumbai FC), Keenan Almeida (Churchill Brothers) and Dharmaraj Ravanan (Chennai City FC) with the trophy at the launch of the 10th edition of the Hero I-League in Delhi.   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Even as the tussle for supremacy and existence continues between the glamorous Indian Super League (ISL) and the much-maligned I-League in the country, the All India Football Federation launched the 10th edition of the latter here on Tuesday, adding two new teams, showcasing some of the best players in India and asserting that it was, indeed, the premier football competition at the moment.

With Hero Motocorp on board as the title sponsor for this season, the I-League would see a team each from Punjab and Chennai — Minerva FC and Chennai City FC respectively – making their debut.

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Former champion Churchill Brothers also makes a comeback but would be the only Goan side in the fray after Dempo, Sporting Clube and Salgaocar pulled out citing various administrative and financial reasons.

Pan India presence

“For the first time, there will be 10 teams with 10 different venues from nine different States in the I-League and it only shows that the league and football in general is spreading across India and returning to former strongholds like Punjab,” I-League CEO Sunando Dhar said.

While Minerva would be hoping to impress with its attacking play led by Manandeep Singh, named the most difficult striker by goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Chennai has placed its hopes in the defensive acumen of experienced homeboy Dharmaraj Ravanan.

The last time a Punjab side played in the competition was JCT in 2010-11 while Chennai City would be the first ever team from the State in the top-flight league since it began in 2007.

AIFF general secretary Kushal Das, when asked about the rumours of merging the league with the ISL or, worse, shutting it down, reiterated the primacy of the competition.

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“We have proposed a roadmap (for having a single league) but there is no deadline or time line for it. A final decision will only be taken when all stakeholders are convinced of it and on board with the details. It is the teams and players from the I-League that go on to represent the country in continental events and otherwise so as of now, clearly the I-League is the premier tournament,” he declared.

Taking it to the grassroots

Ninety of the 105 games this season would be telecast live, Das said, adding that the federation was looking to further develop the game at the youth and grassroots level to ensure a strong base.

“Our grassroots programme is now in 13 states and we are looking to spread it to a further 18 states. There has been an increase in the number of clubs at the youth level — Under-16 and Under-18 — and we will also be starting an Under-13 league from next year,” he added.

Sunil Chhetri, who led Bengaluru to the final of the AFC Cup recently, said the biggest target for 2017 was to go one step further. “The competition in I-League would be very tough. But I could be overambitious then I would like to go and win the AFC Cup this year, that would be a dream. Reaching the final was a dream and it made us realise that we can be there,” Chetri said.

Mahtab Hossain, one of the seniormost pros on the circuit, admitted it was frustrating to keep coming close and not win. “I may not retire but if do not with the trophy this time, I will leave East Bengal at least for sure,” he announced.

The opening game of the competition would see defending champion Bengaluru FC take on Shillong Lajong at home on January 7.

The teams: Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Aizwal FC, Shillong Lajong FC, Mumbai FC, DSK Shivajians, Churchil Brothers, Bengaluru FC, Chennai City FC and Minerva FC.

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