When the I-League was launched a little more than a decade ago, there were hopes that it would rejuvenate and professionalise domestic football. Far from achieving its objective, it will, on Saturday, begin its life as a second-tier competition, having conceded the premier league status to the ISL.
The new season gets underway amidst insecurities – financial and thus, existential. For the next five years at least, there is no scope for them to earn promotion to the top division. That, many club owners fear, will restrict the possibility of attracting investors – the few who were interested, anyway. In turn, it would lead to them having to drastically scale down their operations to stay afloat till 2024-25, when the ISL is expected to fall in line with the common global practice of having promotion and relegation, as per the latest roadmap.
Already, rumours are doing rounds over the future of former I-League champions Aizawl FC. Punjab FC, who were earlier called Minerva Punjab, too are likely to witness some organisational changes in a year or two. The club’s owner Ranjit Bajaj emphasised on the need of having a strong second division during the launch of the I-League season earlier this month. “If there is no second division, there will be no first division. To have a good strong first division, you have to have a strong second division… And you are killing the second division,” Bajaj said.
It’s ironical that I-League’s troubles coincided with a period when it began to achieve at least one of its original objectives – the league might not have professionalised domestic football, to ISL’s credit, they have done that, but it certainly has rejuvenated it. The first seven seasons saw four different winners but such has been the unpredictability since that each of the last five seasons has had a new winner. This season should offer more of the same.
Defending champions Chennai City will once again bank on the precision of Pedro Manzi. The Uruguayan-Spanish striker scored 21 goals last season, his first in India, to lead the Coimbatore-based team to their maiden title. Chennai have retained the core of their squad, with Nesto Gordillo and Micheal Soosairaj the only two major players who have left the club. But their Singaporean coach Akbar Nawas has signed experienced winger Katsumi Yusa of Japan to bolster the attack.
Chennai’s defence will be challenged by Gokulam Kerala, who have the likes of Henry Kisekka and Marcus Joseph leading the frontline and Afghanistan’s Haroon Amiri at the back. David Robertson’s Real Kashmir, who enjoyed a fairytale debut season, will once again be the dark horses. They will be keen to prove that their enviable run last term was more than just beginner’s luck.
One team that will be keen to emulate Real Kashmir’s story will be Manipur’s TRAU FC, short for Tiddim Road Athletic Union Football Club. The second division champions are likely to showcase the best of Manipuri talent, just like city-rivals Neroca have been doing for a couple of seasons.
TRAU’s promotion to I-League also means this season will witness the first-ever Imphal derby, which should be a great spectacle given the region has been a bedrock for Indian football. After the big Kolkata derby (to be played on December 22 and March 15), the clash between the two Imphal clubs (January 8 and February 8) will be the biggest draw of the season.
East Bengal’s quest
Over the last decade, East Bengal have spent more than one hundred crore on players in their quest of the I-League title. But it has remained elusive. Constant changes in the coaching staff and the inability to retain key players have been key reasons for East Bengal not being able to win the championship that they have so desperately craved.
With East Bengal and Mohun Bagan both likely to jump ship and join ISL at the 2020-21 season, it remains to be seen how they approach this, and the next, season. Ahead of the new season, however, the focus isn’t on either of the Kolkata clubs from a title race point of view. The rest seem to have already overtaken them.
Playing today: Aizawl FC vs Mohun Bagan, 2pm; Gokulam Kerala vs Neroca, 7pm; Live on D Sport