On the eve of the latest edition of the I League,the AIFF announced that Airtel would be the title sponsor.
However,it elicited little cheer as the tournament gets underway on Saturday in gloomy circumstances,fighting for relevance and its very existence,as IMG-Reliance’s more glitzy tournament is set to kick off a few months later in January.
It is not just the rival tournament that threatens the I-League. The competition kicks off with 13 clubs in the fray but theres a strong possibility that by the time it ends in May next year,one or two may have fallen by the wayside. Such is the financial mess they find themselves in.
The chit fund scam in West Bengal has had a severe impact on the city clubs budgets. United SC,who finished fourth last season,couldnt even manage a proper pre-season. Their players were ready to take pay-cuts so that the team could be registered for the tournament amidst rumours of the side shutting shop after failing to rope in a sponsor. Kolkata rivals Mohun Bagan are yet to pay last years salaries to seven of their players. Consequently,there has been a sharp reduction in player salaries this season.
Add to this the uncertainty caused by the tournament planned by AIFFs commercial partners IMG-R. The IPL-style competition is scheduled to be held in the middle of the I-League season,bringing it to a halt for three months from January to March.
In such a scenario,foreign recruits and young Indian players bring some promise and add an element of unpredictability.
Eight out of the 13 teams have foreign coaches,a stark contrast from the first season (1996 NFL) where only Churchill Brothers had a foreign coach. Two of the most decorated coaches in the league,Armando Colaco (five titles with Dempo) and Subhas Bhowmick are not involved with any clubs for the first time since the I-League began.
Leading the overseas brigade is Trinidad & Tobago World Cupper Glen Cornell. The 31-year-old was an integral part of the team at the 2006 World Cup and continues to be a regular in the national team. He has been roped in by Shillong Lajong.
Dempo brought in Australian League veteran Simon Colosimo. In his 15-year career,the 34-year-old defender has played for most of the top Australian clubs and made 26 appearances for the national team.
Irelands Billy Mehmat (Dempo),who has more than 100 appearances for Scottish club St Mirren,and Portugal’s Hugo Machado (Churchill) are seen as the best bargains.
Former Swansea,Bristol Rovers and Cheltenham Town striker Darryl Duffy of Scotland and Frances Claude Gnakpa are other notable imports. Both will turn out for Salgaocar.
Dempo strong contenders
Five-time champions Dempo,coached by Australian Arthur Papas,look strong contenders to reclaim title from local rivals Churchill Brothers. East Bengal have got much-needed shot in the arm going into the league by winning their first leg of the AFC Cup quarterfinal against Thailands Semen Padang. A positive result in the away leg on Tuesday could kick-start their season.
Pune FC,regarded as one of the best-run clubs in the country,will be the dark horses along with Goa’s Salgaocar. Among the new entrants,Bangalore FCs performances will be keenly observed along with Santosh Kashyap-coached Rangdajied United.