Even though the roadmap laid out by Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and All India Football Federation (AIFF) demoted I-League to a second-tier domestic competition this season, the wins are not non-existent. With DSports as the newly acquired broadcaster and Instat as the production company, the league finds itself in at least a technically sound new terrain, if not a sportingly superior one.
But where do they go from there?
Shifting the battle from behind the paperwork, the clubs have to now take to the field, starting from November 30, as they face an uphill task to stake their claim as the not-so-dwindling league. The league has to channelise their pride in having a legacy and tradition to counter the glitter and gold of Indian Super League (ISL), ultimately legitimising the concept of one-nation, one-league from the 2024/25 season, which will have performance-based promotion and relegation.
The I-League, which started as National Football league (NFL) in 1996-97, is now in its 23rd season of existence and considering all the factors, is looking ahead to a revamped season, where the title winners will bag an AFC Cup spot. Apart from that, the two top clubs will also find themselves before a gateway into the ISL at the end of the season, only after paying a hefty franchise fee.
With the newly promoted TRAU FC, I-League will kickstart their season with two former champions, Aizawl FC and Mohun Bagan, at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, Aizawl on Saturday. After that, a total of 109 matches will be played across five months and 17 weeks and across eight states, where clubs like East Bengal, Real Kashmir, and Gokulam Kerala will vie to dethrone the reigning champions, Chennai City FC.
The Akbar Nawas-managed side will start their title defence at home against Punjab FC on Sunday, and although they have lost key players in Néstor Gordillo and Michael Soosairaj, the core of their squad remains the same with the addition of former title-winner Katsumi Yusa. Even though they still are the team to beat, the Coimbatore side should go into the season after properly gauging the increased strength of the title contenders.
Because it’s not just the usual suspects in Alejandro Menéndez’s East Bengal and Kibu Vicuña’s Mohun Bagan that will look to unsettle the hierarchy — Fernando Santiago’s Gokulam Kerala and David Robertson’s Real Kashmir are also in the fray. Boasting a menacing strikeline of Henry Kisekka and Marcus Joseph and riding on the momentum after winning the Durand Cup, the Malabarians look prepared to do the unpredictable. As for Real Kashmir, being the dark horses suits them well.
At the launch of the league, India’s head coach Igor Stimac provided words of encouragement, claiming that he will have a keen eye on the league for his national setup, which will continue their doomed World Cup qualifying from March next year.
“The players need to know that each player in the league with an Indian passport is one of the possible future candidates for the national team. It’s up to them — how they perform for their respective teams, how they present themselves and how many points they win for their clubs,” he said.
Owing to their performances last season in the I-League, the likes of Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Narender Gehlot, Jobby Justin, and Salam Ranjan Singh did find themselves in the thick of things under the Croatian’s leadership. So, it remains to be seen whether the new bloods like East Bengal’s Bidyashagar Singh, Indian Arrow’s Vikram Pratap Singh, Mohun Bagan’s Nongdamba Naorem, Real Kashmir’s Danish Farooq, Churchill Brothers’ Vinil Poojary, and Chennai City’s Ajith Kumar can make the cut.
What remains to be seen is whether the mixture of old traditional clubs and the youthful prospects can provide yet another ebullient season, continuing the trend of having a new champion in the last five years. Be it Mohun Bagan winning the league in the dying embers of the game, Aizawl’s magical title win, Minerva Punjab’s resilience right till the end or Chennai City’s rejuvenation last season — I-League has always come up with drama.
“What makes the I-League special I believe is its competitiveness and unpredictability. You cannot earmark a team and be absolutely sure that they are going to win. That unpredictability is rare in football these days,” said Sunando Dhar, CEO of the I-League, ahead of the opening match-day.
And in hope of searching that very unpredictability in the footballing temples of Kolkata, Margao, Kozhikode, and even Imphal, the faithful will start to flock from Saturday onwards. As far as the teams go who will lock horns in the season opener, both Aizawl and Mohun Bagan are hoping to make the most of their transition under new managers, Stanley Rosario and Kibu Vicuña.
While Aizawl have retained their African wall consisting of Alfred Jaryan and Richard Kasagga, and the likes of Lalremsanga, Rocharzela and William Lalnunfella, Mohun Bagan have a familiar Debjit Majumder in goal, and Kim Kima and Arijit Bagui in the heart of their defence. Vicuña has also roped in the likes of Trinidad’s Daniel Cyrus, and Francisco Munoz, Fran Morante, and Joseba Beitia of Spain to bolster their attack.
Whether or not the I-League can survive the reality check remains the talk of the town, but one thing is for certain — the competition, in all probability, will stick to its roots and its unpredictability will serve up yet another season to remember, with Davids slaying Goliaths, in a much higher resolution on television screens.
(Aizawl host Mohun Bagan at 2 PM IST, Gokulam Kerala host Neroca at 7 PM IST on Saturday)