The I-League will be stepping into darkness after Saturday. But it will do so only after ensuring that those familiar with its current version will remember it fondly. For on Saturday, two south Indian cities, separated by a state border and just over 180 kilometres, will host matches that will decide the fate of yet another edge-of-the-seat title race. One of the two teams involved in this race could become the third consecutive club to win the title for the first time.
It doesn’t have much by way of infrastructure, financial health or television coverage but an air of unpredictability has descended upon the I-League over the past two years due to lesser teams reaching up and grabbing the golden apple.
In 2017, Aizawl FC made international headlines by staging a coup on the league title and they were followed by Minerva Punjab in 2018. This year, Chennai City FC have taken up the task of keeping the favourites away from the top spot and they didn’t take long to get down to business. Out of their first 10 matches, the Coimbatore-based club won seven and drew two, scoring 21 goals in the process.
Chennai City were given a direct entry into the I-League in the 2016/17 season. At the time, the All India Football Federation was scrambling to fill up empty slots in the league which opened up due to the withdrawals of Goan clubs Dempo SC, Salgaocar and Sporting Club de Goa. Second division runners-up Minerva were promoted, Aizawl’s relegation was overturned and Chennai were allowed to bypass the I-League second division and gain direct entry into the top flight.
In the years since, two of these clubs have won the league and the third already have one finger on the trophy.
Chennai escaped relegation last year by beating Minerva 2-1 in their final game. In the off-season, head coach Akbar Nawas and his assistant Jordi Villa travelled to Spain and handpicked four players for the squad. Three of them – Pedro Manzi, Sandro Rodriquez and Nestor Gordillo – have contributed 37 goals out of the 45 that Chennai City have scored thus far in the season. The Spaniards powered Chennai’s domination of the league in their first 10 matches.
The second half has been more of a bumpy ride for them and allowed East Bengal, Real Kashmir and Churchill Brothers to catch up and keep pace. It meant that the shoddy pictures that broadcaster Star Sports projected onto the television screens was capturing a four-way title race for much of 2019.
Churchill eventually fell out of contention but they made Chennai wait for the title by beating them 3-2 on March 1. League debutants Real Kashmir’s title aspirations were dashed when they lost 2-1 to East Bengal in their relocated home match in New Delhi.
Chennai City will be hosting Minerva Punjab in Coimbatore on Saturday. Minerva’s safety was confirmed last week when Shillong Lajong lost 4-1 to Aizawl FC. About 182 kilometres to the west, East Bengal will be playing Gokulam Kerala in Kozhikode. East Bengal have been better as travellers this year than at home, winning seven of their nine away matches.
The equation stands thus: East Bengal have to beat Gokulam and then hope that Chennai City draw or lose their match against Minerva. Both teams are dealing with big absences up front. For Chennai City, it is Nestor Gordillo, who is serving a suspension after accumalating four yellow cards while East Bengal’s Jobby Justin was handed a six-match ban earlier this week.
This season of the I-League, which could be its last as India’s legitimate top flight, has been a reflection of where Indian football is at the moment. It has gone to far flung corners of the country and attracted sell-out crowds regardless of the weather on the day in some places, empty stands in others. But the difference between the two is difficult to discern if you follow the matches on the TV or online thanks to the camera work that has been anywhere between unsatisfactory to downright shambolic in some cases. Fans and stakeholders have often pointed out the stark contrast on this front when compared to the Indian Super League. One gets the sense that the passion for the game is there, but the powers that be are looking for it in all the wrong places.