Its future uncertain due to the impending restructuring of the country’s football structure, the I-League kicks off Friday with a lot of promise following a fantastic previous season and a fair amount of buzz due to Real Kashmir’s debut in the top division. The All India Football Federation’s development side Indian Arrows and Chennai City FC face each other in the opening match at the Nehru Stadium in Coimbatore on Friday. Eleven clubs from 10 states will vie for top honours in the league which will continue for over six months. Srinagar-based Real Kashmir FC are making their debut in the I-League after winning the second division league earlier this year.
There is quite a buzz in the Kashmir Valley in anticipation of the first I-League coming to Srinagar and also after the two-year-old club scooped a major sponsorship deal with global sportswear major Adidas. Since the launch of the cash-rich franchise-based Indian Super League in 2013, the I-League has been the poor cousin of the ISL, though the All Indian Football Federation would still describe it as the top league in the country.
In terms of the spectators turning out during matches or the playing conditions and pitch, the I-League seemed to be inferior to the ISL though majority of its matches were also telecast live. But surprisingly, the competitiveness among the teams and even the quality of football, according to experts, were almost similar in both the leagues last season. In the previous season, the I-League went down the wire with four clubs — Minerva Punjab, Neroca, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal — in title contention going into the final match day.
Minerva Punjab eventually lifted their maiden title with three points ahead of Neroca, who in turn, secured just one point more than third and fourth placers Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Churchill Brothers, who finished ninth out of 10 teams last season, were to be relegated as AIFF’s developmental side Indian Arrows were immune to this rule, but the Goan side got a breather and were retained this season.
“Now that the restructuring is going to happen, we thought there was no harm in retaining Churchill Brothers (for this upcoming season) as relegating them would see no representation from the whole of West India,” AIFF senior vice-president Subrata Dutta said at the I-League launch ceremony. The AIFF has for some time been seized with this issue of restructuring of domestics football structure and from the hints dropped by the brass of the national federation, including its president Praful Patel, a final decision is on the cards. Current I-League sides and easily the two clubs with the most popular fan-base Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are set to join the ISL bandwagon next season.
With the departure of the two biggest clubs in the country, the stature of the I-League will fall a notch down though the AIFF officials sought to play down this kind of eventuality. The name — I-League — itself may be change and is most likely to relegated to the second tier status. For the current season, however, it is hard to pick the favourites to dominate the league though as usual the Big Two of Kolkata have the star power of individual brilliance.
Haitian International Sony Norde, who helped Mohun Bagan win their lone I-League title in 2014-15, is back to don the Green and Maroon colours. Norde left Mohun Bagan after suffering a knee injury midway last season but now he has signed a new contract and is likely to be available from his side’s second match. With I-League’s best striker in the last two seasons, Cameroonian Aser Dipanda Dicka in their ranks also, Mohun Bagan’s lethal strike force should be a worry for other clubs.
They won the Kolkata League this season at the expense of arch-rivals East Bengal. East Bengal, meanwhile, has strengthened its defence by signing Costa Rican World Cupper Jhonny Acosta Zamora in search of their maiden I-League title. The 5-year-old Zamora played in all of the Costa Rica’s group matches in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Defending champions Minerva Punjab will continue their reliance on the young players from their academy and domestic players with some quality foreigners.
Last year also, they did not have many big names in their ranks but went onto win the title. “Just like last year, we will play as a team and try to defend the title,” Souvik Das said. Manipur side Neroca, which finished second in their first season last year, have signed a new coach Manuel Retamero Fraile and the Spaniard is set to herald a change in playing style from his predecessor Gift Raikhan’s direct football to possession and short passing system.
“We want to win the I-League this time, or at least we cannot go down the second spot. The football-crazy people of Manipur will not accept a position lower than that from the last season. We have a new coach and with it a new playing style,” Lalit Thapa, captain of the Imphal-based side, said. The I-League this year will be broadcast live on the Star Sports Network and their digital platform Hotstar along with Jio TV.
The 12th edition will also be rewarding for the players with significant prize money at stake for the top teams. The champions will pocket Rs 1 crore while the runners-up, third place and fourth place teams will get Rs 60 lakh, Rs 40 lakh and Rs 25 lakh respectively.