Let’s football? Many question marks as the I-League kicks off this weekend

Let’s football? Many question marks as the I-League kicks off this weekend
Photo Credit: IANS
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Come on India, let’s football.

Surprised to hear this again? Yes, the second season of the much-hyped Indian Super League ended not too long ago, but that does not mean all is quiet on the Indian football front. If you’re really a purist, the real action starts now as this year’s edition of the I-League gets underway on Saturday.

Yes, the I-League. The ISL’s poorer cousin which, surprisingly, is the premier domestic competition in Indian football. Sure, it may not possess the superstar owners or the marquee players, but funnily enough, it is the actual Indian football league. The tournament is held over more than two months and the participants include India’s oldest football clubs, some of which date back to the British era.

Hit by withdrawals

Indian football is at a crucial juncture, which is what makes this edition of the I-League all the more interesting. The Indian Super League may have brought in the crowds, but its success has come at a cost. As the clamour for a single Indian football league grows, it increasingly seems like the I-League is on its last legs. Since the end of the previous season, two I-League clubs – Pune FC and Bharat FC – announced a pullout owing to the lack of a “long-term vision” from the All India Football Federation. In particular, Pune’s withdrawal was a major setback, considering it was one of the first few professionally managed teams in Indian football.

There was more bad news to come. In November, Royal Wahingdoh, a 70-year-old football club from Shillong that had finished third in its debut season in the top league, also announced that it was leaving.

Thankfully though, it’s not all doom and gloom – Aizawl FC are the new entrants to the I-League this season after clinching promotion from the second division, while DSK Shivajians, another Pune club, have been granted direct entry.

DSK Shivajians’ participation provides a glimmer of hope for Indian football. The club has partnered with English Premier League giants Liverpool to train their youth teams. Shivajians are one of the few Indian football clubs to have placed emphasis on grassroots training and development. They have unearthed some gems in the process – 18-year old Lallianzuala Chhangte, who recently became one of the youngest Indian footballers to score an international goal, is a product of DSK’s academy.

Unemployed and uncertain

When Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan won the title in a thrilling last-day encounter against Bengaluru FC last year, there was much hope that the I-League would finally get its due importance in the footballing calendar. Unfortunately, much of that hope has dissipated. Unlike the marketing blitz which preceded the Indian Super League, there is absolutely no sign that India’s premier domestic football league is about to begin.

Clubs are still unsure about the players that will turn out for them. Robin Singh, one of India’s top strikers, is stuck in limbo, with his ISL franchise Delhi Dynamos embroiled in a tussle with I-League club Bengaluru FC.

Ironically, the issue of player unemployment has become a major crisis with the advent of the Indian Super League. Since Indian Super League players can field only up to six foreign players in a match, they have a limited pool of Indian players on their books. And with the number of I-League clubs declining with many in various states of financial decline, several Indian football players are out of work at the moment.

The only solution, as many football critics have pointed out, is a unified league. Those in the power corridors of Indian football have acknowledged this reality. On Wednesday, AIFF secretary Kushal Das suggested that a total of 17 teams could compete in a combined league in the future. However, a concrete roadmap for this endeavour is still a long way away.

Meanwhile, defending champions Mohun Bagan will kick off this year’s season against Aizawl FC in an afternoon game on Saturday. And considering the growing uncertainty surrounding the event, it could very well be the last time the league is played.