So what has changed? As what has perhaps been the I-League’s most significant season since its inception in 2007, draws to a close with a thriller in Bengaluru, that is the question playing on everybody’s mind.
This was a season when the Indian Super League, the big bad wolf for the right wing of Indian football and long awaited salvation for those on the opposite end of the spectrum, finally announced itself. This was supposed to the season where the I-League either sank or swam. But after an year spent sleeping with what many believed to be the enemy, the country’s ‘premier football tournament’ is still drifting.
The ISL was supposed to drastically change the landscape of Indian football and it has, except for a little corner plot occupied by the 11 I-League teams. Little has changed. Bengaluru FC and Pune FC continue to be the best-run clubs in the country, while the Kolkata giants, despite Mohun Bagan’s nostalgia-inducing title challenge, still are the two most laughably-administered. Matches continue to be played out in empty arenas (Bengaluru and Shillong are notable exceptions), while little has changed in the way the league’s official broadcaster sleepwalks through the season. But little, most tellingly, has changed on the field.
“The standard of play is still the same,” says former India captain IM Vijayan. “I think it all has to do with who you play with. When you are playing with the likes of (Alessandro) del Piero and (Nicolas) Anelka, you somehow push yourself that extra bit. But when you come back to I-League, the motivation level is bound to drop,” he says. That is a view Salgaocar boss Derrick Perreira agrees with. “The ISL is the more glamourous tournament, so sometimes it feels like the players’ focus is more on it than I-League,” says Perreira.
Perreira, however, refutes the argument that the I-League has failed to move forward. “We have had better facilities this year. The AIFF’s stubbornness in enforcing the AFC Club licensing criteria has ensured that the clubs are much better. But there is no denying that we have a long way to go.”
So what of the future? One of the more significant clues as to how the I-League will evolve is the demise (or slipping into coma, if you believe the AIFF) of the Federation Cup.
The absence of the cup frees up more space on the calendar, allowing for a bigger I-League. The AIFF has already initiated the necessary moves, the same ones that spawned Bengaluru and Bharat FC.
“We will invite bids for new clubs in the off-season. The executive committee has already approved the process. While there is no guarantee there will be new clubs, we are also looking at the possibility of inducting more than one club. As of now, the plan is to have a bigger I-League next year,” says league CEO Sunando Dhar.
Bigger, yes, but better?
What Legends think
Aslam Khan, 1984 Md Sporting, 1986 Mohun Bagan:
Mohun Bagan have two chances - draw or win. BFC must win so they will be under more pressure. They also beat BFC 4-1 at home. I think Mohun Bagan stand a better chance.
Victor Amalraj, 1978, 1983 Md Sporting, 1981, 1982 East Bengal, 1984-1990 Mohun Bagan:
Mohun Bagan are an old club and BFC a new entity. During my days, I would even predict a scoreline and say MB will win 2-0. But today, you cannot take anything for granted. All will depend on the day’s showing.
Head to head
clashes in I-League
Sept 22, 2013
BFC 1 (Sean Rooney) drew Mohun Bagan 1 (Sabeeth).
April 6, 2014
Mohun Bagan 0 lost to BFC 2 (Thoi Singh, Sean Rooney).
Feb 20, 2015
Mohun Bagan 4 (Sony Norde 2, Katsumi Yusa, Bikramjit Singh) bt BFC 1 (Sunil Chhetri)
BFC: Eugeneson Lyngdoh 6 goals, Robin Singh and Thoi Singh 5 goals each.
Mohun Bagan: Sony Norde of Haiti 8 goals, Katsumi Yusa of Japan 7 goals, Balwant Singh 6 goals.
Even before a ball had been kicked, AIFF took the stern decision to bar two-time I-League champions Churchill Brothers, Rangdajied and United SC from taking part in the 2014-15 season as they had all failed club licensing tests. (Royal Wahingdoh had also failed the test but they were given a one-time exemption as they were a newly promoted club).
Goan Clubs Fade Away
The Goan clubs for long have been an important fabric of Indian football. However, the law of diminishing returns has caught up. This will be first time in the history of the I-League that not even one Goan club will be finishing in the top three.
No More Federation Cup
The AIFF decided to do away with the Federation Cup, the country’s premier football club competition. The body said the meet would be put on hold for ‘2-3 years’.
Return to Normalcy
After Sunil Chhetri became only the second Indian player to win the Golden Boot last year, Ranti Martins is once again expected to claim the award. The Nigerian – one of the I-League’s greatest ever goal scorers — has scored 17 goals in 20 games for East Bengal, one more than Shillong’s Cornell Glen.
After Wahingdoh’s promotion, another club from the seven states — Mizoram’s Aizawl FC (promoted for next season) – will make it three sides in the top division. The region has never known a better time in Indian football.
Isl teams tire
Both Dempo and Lajong — the two I-League teams who co-owned ISL clubs — had forgettable campaigns, with players tiring towards the end. In Dempo’s case, their season ended in relegation. The duo’s fate is an indicator that at least certain players had too much football to play this season.
Emergence of youngsters
The season threw up a number of promising youngsters, none more exciting than the Wahingdoh duo of Jackiechand Singh and Seityasen Singh. The two are not alone, with Sporting’s Brandon Fernandes, Bengaluru FC’s Udanta Singh and Pune’s Thongkhosiem Haokip all enthralling fans this year. The future sure looks bright!
Season in Digits
0.85 Ranti Martins scored an outrageous 0.85 goals per game for East Bengal.
2 Dhanpal Ganesh had the most red cards in the league this season.
7 Thongkhosiem Haokip is the highest domestic scorer with 7 goals.
13 No team managed to score fewer goals in the league than newly-inducted Bharat FC.