I-League faces bleak future

Football : Defending champions BFC take on Lajong in their opening tie

I-League faces bleak future

 In 2007 when the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided to rebrand the National Football League into I-League, the idea was to imbibe professionalism and a definite structure to the premier domestic tournament in the country.

The initial years went as planned. The league was surrounded by much fanfare, football hot-beds like Kolkata, Goa and Kerala accepted the rechristened tournament with open arms and the official broadcaster did its bit by not only telecasting the games, but also had pre-match and post-match shows. But with every passing year, the league has struggled to sustain the interest and now stares at an exit from the national fold.

And when Bengaluru FC kick-off the 10th edition of the I-League against Shillong Lajong FC at the Sree Kanteerava stadium on Saturday, one wouldn’t be wrong in believing that this could probably be the last year that they would get to see the league in its current form and stature.

While a lot has to be blamed on the league itself for not making the most of the market during its initial days, the advent of the cash-rich Indian Super League (ISL) too has played a big role in pushing the league to its current situation.

“The absence of proper marketing has been a big concern for the league,” said Novy Kapadia a well known Indian football commentator.

“During my several stints as a commentator to various cities, I have noticed I-League being almost non-existent to the people there. When I was in Goa last year, it was noticeable that there were only banners featuring the ISL even when it had got over a month ago,” he stated.

But away from the uncertainties, the teams are looking forward to giving their best in the league. “There’s a lot of talk going on what the future of the league could be. But that hasn’t affected us,” said Thangboi Singto, the Lajong head coach.

“There’s clarity on one thing, and that’s that we will be facing Bengaluru FC tomorrow. And we want to ensure that we use every opportunity that we get to give our best,” he added.

And Singto will need his players to be on top of their game as, against Bengaluru, even the slightest of mistake could prove to be costly for the ‘Highlanders’.

Meanwhile, Bengaluru too will be keen to get their campaign off to a winning start. Though a handful of regular starters like Rino Anto and Lalchhuanmawia are set to miss due to injuries, head coach Albert Roca will have the luxury of his new recruits in Harmanjot Khabra, Mandar Rao Dessai and Lenny Rodrigues as he begins his sojourn in the I-League.

Though the season has 10 teams vying for glory, one more than the last year, apart from the big three — Bengaluru, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan — no other team looks good enough to spring a surprise.

While Mumbai FC and DSK Shivajians could prove to be party-poppers, for others including first-timers Chennai City FC and Minerva Punjab FC and the returning Churchill brothers this could be an opportunity to measure themselves against the established names in the league.

The competitors

Bengaluru FC
Twice winners (2014, 2016) in just three tries, defending champions Bengaluru FC have set new standards for the other clubs to follow. Led by the charismatic Sunil Chhetri, Bengaluru once again look poised to retain the title this year.

Though Albert Roca has replaced Ashley Westwood as their head coach, the team has responded well to his playing philosophy are there’s no doubt that one is in for some entertaining football.
Head coach: Albert Roca
Key player: Sunil Chhetri

Mohun Bagan
Arguably the most decorated club in India, Mohun Bagan will be among the favourites to wear the crown. After losing the title to Bengaluru last year, Bagan will be keen to bounce back this season.  With the likes of Jeje Lalpekhlua, Sony Norde and Yusa Katsumi in their ranks, Bagan probably has the strongest forward line-up. It also suits their high-intensity playing style.

Meanwhile, the arrival of Delhi Dynamos defender Anas Edathodika will also add steel to their defence.
Head coach: Sanjoy Sen
Key player: Jeje Lalpekhlua

DSK Shivajians
Having endured a torrid debut season, Shivajians will look to turn their fortunes around with a decent finish this time.  Liverpool-born Dave Rogers has been named as the new head coach and with the likes of Spanish medio Juan Quero, goalkeeper Subrata Paul, midfielder Milan Singh and striker Kim Song-Yong in his ranks.

Head coach: Dave Rogers
Key player: Juan Quero

 East Bengal
Three-time National Football League (NFL) champions (2001, 2003, 2004), East Bengal can give any team a run for their money. They finished third last season and will be eager to improve on that this year.

The additions of Romeo Fernandes and Jackichand Singh is expected to boost an attack that will miss Ranti Martins, while the arrival of Ivan Bukenya seems to be a much needed change in the defence.
Head coach: Trevor Morgan
Key player: Willis Plaza

Aizawl FC
Their position on the league table last year doesn’t paint a clear picture on how their debut season panned out.

Though eighth on the table, the team from the north-east proved their mettle with a handful of quality performance that took many by surprise. And under new head coach Khalid Jamil, they will be keen to carry on the good work.

Jamil, known to take the fight to the opposition, will hope to instill the same spirit in the team. New recruits Nigerian Eze Kingsley and Ivorian Kamo Bayi will have a big role to play.
Head coach: Khalid Jamil
Key player: Kamo Bayi

Churchill Brothers
Two-time champions (2009, 2013) Churchill Brothers’ return to the top flight happened in a rather unusual way.

Helping them in their run will be seasoned campaigners Brandon Fernandes, Clifford Miranda and Denzil Franco.
Head coach: Joseph Afusi
Key player: Alfred Fernandes

Chennai City FC
Coached by Robin Charles Raju, new comers Chennai City FC will rely heavily on the experience of goalkeeper Karanjit Singh and midfielders Zakeer Mundampara and Dhanpal Ganesh, each of whom has turned out for the ISL franchise Chennaiyin FC, to see them through this season.
Head coach: Robin Charles Raju
Key player: Dharmaraj Ravanan

Minerva Punjab FC
One of the two first-timers, Minerva Punjab FC have been the talk of the town since their heroics in I-League (II) last season.

A young side led by midfielder Vinit Rai in the company of Nigerian striker Joel Sunday and Guamian Marcus Lopez will look to spring a handful of surprises this year.
Head coach: Surinder Singh
Key player: Joel Sunday.

Mumbai FC
A budget club with not much ambition. That could be best way to describe Mumbai FC so far. But with Santosh Kashyap taking over the reins, that’s likely to change.

Known for his attacking mentality, it would be fascinating to see if Kashyap can save Mumbai from being just another side in the league.
Head coach: Santosh Kashyap
Key player: Nikhil Kadam

Shillong Lajong
‘Consistently inconsistent.’ Probably the best way one could to describe Shillong Lajong’s run in the I-League so far. And if this year has to be different, the Thangboi Singto-coached side will have to fire from all cylinders from the word go.
Head coach: Thangboi Singto
Key player: Asier Dipanda

-- Complied by Joy Das

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