I-league: The league of the masses

With traditional clubs locking horns with newer ones, the I-League will keep the beating heart of Indian football alive despite official apathy.

Chennai City FC was hard done by the late announcement of dates.   -  S. Siva Saravanan

Casting aside the uncertainties that have engulfed it since the end of the previous season, the 13th edition of the I-League is finally set to roll out for another season. The league, which was introduced 23 years back with much fanfare to usher in professionalism and a pan-Indian spread, finds itself in a phase-out mode. It will gradually offer some of its teams to its modern cousin, the Indian Super League (ISL), before stepping into the twilight by the 2024-25 season.

The much-debated roadmap outlined to find solution to the one-country-one-league concept finally got the stamp of approval from the stakeholders in October, lifting the cloud of uncertainty hovering over the tournament.

The tournament kicks off on November 30 with 11 teams. The late announcement of dates, though, have affected the preparations of the clubs, leaving them very little time to get their squads in shape ahead of a gruelling season. The search for a sustainable revenue model, too, continues to dog the clubs, many of which are finding it difficult to fund their expenditures in the absence of adequate sponsorship.

Aizawl FC bettered traditional powerhouses like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Churchill Brothers on its way to the I-League title in 2017.   -  Rajeev Bhatt


Waiting for confirmation

The uncertainty over the state of the league over the past few months led to rumours that a few clubs might drop out, including Aizawl FC from the north-east. The 2016-17 I-League champion, however, allayed fears in a recent tweet.

Defending champion Chennai City FC, too, was hard done by the late announcement of dates.

“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 Rohit Ramesh, the owner of the Coimbatore-based club.

“If we knew two months prior, it would have helped us top prepare in a healthier way. Luckily, we did not start preseason early... Teams which started the pre-season early might not have the legs towards the end of the season,” he added.

Talent hunt

The ISL might take the cream of the crop of Indian players, but the I-League clubs have a knack for finding new talent from India’s hinterland. Chennai City, exemplifying this, unearthed stars in two fishing villages, Eraviputhenthurai and Marthanthurai, on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border.

East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, in particular, have a history of finding new talent through the scouting process countrywide. A good example is Jobby Justin, now a striker for ISL team ATK and the Indian national team, who was signed by East Bengal in 2017 after being spotted while playing for the Kerala State Electricity Board.

“If we take CCFC (Chennai City FC) into consideration, (Michael) Soosairaj, Edwin (Sydney Vanspaul), Nanda (Kumar) have excelled in the ISL, but most other Indian players who have moved from our club to the ISL are sitting on the bench. We are still the league that nurtures talent,” said Chennai City’s Ramesh.

The 2018 Kolkata derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal had more than 60,000 spectators. The two clubs, 130 and 100 years old, respectively, have been the nerve centres of Indian football and have contributed immensely to the popularity of the sport in the country.   -  PTI


Legacy clubs

Mohun Bagan, which was formed in 1889, and East Bengal, which is celebrating 100 years of existence, have been the nerve centres of Indian football and have contributed immensely to the popularity of the sport in the country. Each has a fan base running into millions.

“In real terms, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal define football in India just by their virtue of being the clubs with the highest fan following. They can make or mar a tournament by their presence or absence. The I-League remains a significant tournament by all accounts and it will keep contributing to Indian football till the time the unified structure comes into shape,” said Debasish Dutta, a senior official at Mohun Bagan.

“The reason why football in the country is not growing in the way it should have in the past few decades is because the clubs were not able to invest in youth development in the desired manner. If you do not create players of good calibre, you cannot raise the level of the game,” said Debabrata ‘Nitu’ Sarkar, a senior official of East Bengal.

“It is for the national body and the clubs to organise a proper ecosystem that will nurture the talent and secure them a good professional career in the sport,” he added.

“Clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan need government funding to sustain their youth-development programme and infrastructure development. In most of the countries playing football, the government plays a crucial role in assisting the development of the sport,” said the senior East Bengal official.

Players of Minerva Punjab FC celebrate after winning the I-League.   -  PTI


New centres

Football is a religion in India’s north-eastern states, and the region currently has three teams in the I-League: Aizawl FC, NEROCA FC and TRAU FC, with the latter two set to contest in the Manipur derby.

States like Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram conduct their own tournaments, with the assistance of FIFA’s Goal Project, leading to the discovery and development of new talent. Aizawl was testament to that as it bettered traditional powerhouses like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Churchill Brothers on its way to the I-League title in 2017.

Punjab FC — previously Minerva Punjab FC — is also a similar story. The Ludhiana-based side captured the 2017-18 title with home-bred talent, becoming the first team from north India to win the country’s top football league since 1996.

Meanwhile, Real Kashmir FC, which gained promotion to the I-League last season and finished a creditable third, has rekindled interest in football in the strife-torn region.

With teams from Goa — Churchill Brothers — and Kerala also in the fray — Gokulam Kerala — the I-League today can be truly called a pan-India tournament. With traditional clubs, with millions in fan base, locking horns with the hard-working nurseries of the game, the league, now armed with a three-year-long broadcasting deal, will continue to draw fans and players alike to keep the beating heart of Indian football alive despite official apathy.

Players to look out for

Bidyashagar Singh (East Bengal): Having debuted for the senior team last season, Bidyashagar Singh stormed into the limelight with his spirited performances in the Calcutta Football League this year. Playing the role of a super-sub to perfection and netting a couple of goals, the East Bengal academy graduate has firmly established himself as a strong candidate for the starting XI.

Ajith Kumar (Chennai City FC): Owning the left-back position with finesse, Ajith Kumar was the find of the season for Chennai City FC last year. The 23-year-old was instrumental in the side’s maiden I-League triumph and was duly rewarded with a three-year contract extension. If he can continue to impress, the tireless defender will most certainly attract attention from national team coach Igor Stimac.

Laldanmawia Ralte (East Bengal): Laldanmawia Ralte is among the more senior players in the East Bengal squad and is certainly among the most exciting players to look out for in the I-League. The Red and Gold Brigade’s captain struck eight goals last season and was the club’s second-highest scorer. With a wealth of experience and a knack of finding spaces, Ralte will be key to his side’s title charge this campaign.

Danish Farooq (Real Kashmir): Fondly known as the ‘Kashmiri Ronaldo,’ Danish Farooq was a mainstay in Real Kashmir’s debut I-League appearance last year. Though he only managed two goals, the 23-year-old was indispensable in his side’s remarkable third-place finish. With the national team in search of more attacking options, Danish might just fit the bill.

Suhair V. P. (Mohun Bagan): Coming off a strong Durand Cup campaign that saw him score two goals and craft as many assists, Suhair will be vital to Mohun Bagan’s chances this year. The Kerala-born forward had earlier represented rival East Bengal, but an injury saw him miss close to a year of football. He was then loaned to Gokulam Kerala last season, where he led the side to silverware in the Kerala Premier League and the Durand Cup. The 27-year-old will look to achieve greater success with the Mariners.