I-League kicks off to uncertain future

I-League kicks off to uncertain future

I-League kicks off to uncertain future

They were three minutes away from what would have been another historic day in their small but eventful journey so far. Bengaluru FC, the first-ever football club to win the I-League title in its debut season, knew anything but three points would see the giants of Indian football, Mohun Bagan, snatch away what they cherished as their own.

With all the right thoughts and with just one goal in their minds, the Blues stepped on the pitch at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium as the rain poured down with no mercy, adding tension to what panned out to be a thriller of a contest.

Bengaluru’s young blood, Udanta Singh, created a lot of trouble for the Bagan defenders, while the visitors were driven on by their foreign imports Yusa Katsumi and Sony Norde as the two continued their good work into the final clash of the season.

The first twist came in the 41st minute. Defender John Johnson rose high to guide a Eugeneson Lyngdoh corner into the back of the net, which handed BFC the much needed lead and send the Bengaluru fans into delirium. But much like most of the blockbusters, this story too had another twist. And this time it was Bagan’s veteran Bello Rasaq who repeated the Johnson heroics at the other end to draw parity and ensure the game ended 1-1.

The draw meant Mohun Bagan retained their top spot in the standings and clinched their first-ever I-League title with a mere point.

"If you would have told me to write a script for the season, I could not have written it better with the last minute goal in the very last match,” said Sunando Dhar, the CEO of the I-League, reacting to last season’s final day’s play.

“Apart from the top of the table clash, five teams were facing relegation till the last match day and Dempo SC conceded a goal in the 97th minute and got demoted. So, things were exciting in the bottom half of the table as well which helped in the league’s appeal,” he added.

Sadly though, that exciting finale hasn’t done anything to improve I-League’s struggling fortunes. As the latest edition kicks off on Saturday in Kolkata with a clash between Mohun Bagan and Aizawl FC, the future of the competition itself looks uncertain.

Lack of support from the federation, clubs pulling out of the league and players without clubs all paint a murky picture. Meanwhile, the Indian Super League (ISL) portraying itself as the future of Indian football too did not do any good to the I-League.

With three teams — Pune FC, Bharat FC and Royal Wahingdoh — who were part of the top division last season, having decided to pull out, the league will be a nine-team affair, the lowest number in its nine years of existence. Pune-based DSK Shivajians and the promoted Aizawl are the new entrants, hoping to make a mark on their debut.

Of course, that would be far from easy. Bengaluru, spearheaded by Indian captain Sunil Chhetri, will be eager to retain the title, having strengthened the squad under coach Ashley Westwood.  Defending champions Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will also be in the forefront of the title race.

However, when the new season kicks off in Kolkata, the talk is expected to revolve around the future of the league, which seems to have one foot in the grave. All we can do is hope and pray that the players put up another splendid season and answer the critics with their game on the field.