13 teams, 11 cities: I-League manages to stay relevant as it kicks off under ISL shadow
At the onset of the Indian Super League in 2014, the direction of Indian football, especially the I-League was in serious doubt. Over the years however, the two competitions have managed to co-exist.
KOCHI: "We are very optimistic that we are in the right direction to create the right structure for Indian football."
These were the words of All India Football Federation General Secretary Kushal Das during a pre-tournament media interaction on Monday ahead of the 2021-22 I-League.
At the onset of the Indian Super League back in 2014, the direction of Indian football, especially the I-League was in serious doubt. Over the years, however, the two competitions have managed to co-exist, thanks largely because the I-League has managed to stay relevant because of its competitiveness and diversity that helped heartwarming narratives. Whether it was Aizawl FC's title triumph or Real Kashmir's emergence.
The new season of the I-League is set to kick off on December 26, and once again, questions about the relevance of India's once premier football competition re-surface inevitably.
Das is bullish that the I-League has its own place in the Indian football spectrum, especially with the introduction of promotion to the ISL from 2023 onwards.
"There is a roadmap now which kicks in from the 2023-24 season whereby the winner of the I-League will play in the ISL on sporting merit, thereby increasing the number of teams in the ISL. And two years after that, there is a clear promotion and relegation and that is the plan agreed by all the stakeholders. And at the moment, we are completely in sync with that plan," said Das.
The new I-League will feature 13 teams from as many as 11 cities. And for the first time, a team from Rajasthan will be participating in the I-League with Rajasthan United taking part in the tournament having won the I-League qualifiers earlier this year.
Sreenidi Deccan FC and Kenkre FC also bring added diversity to the I-League as there is representation from across the length and breadth of the country.
"I am extremely excited for the new season and hope it goes down to the wire like last time. The addition of new teams from Rajasthan, Mumbai and the Deccan region will give more chances to players from different regions. We have done well to spread the league across the country after the initial years of multiple teams coming from Kolkata, Goa and Mumbai,” said I-League CEO Dhar.
One of the hallmarks of the I-League over the years has been its tendency to go down to the wire with titles getting decided on the final day of the season. Das suggested that once the situation improves when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, the organisers plan to take the league back to stadiums across the country on a home and away basis.
"Having teams from various states and cities would do wonders to that particular state or city. Especially once we are back to normal and have home and away matches, I think it will do great things for fans in that particular city or state and that should really help Indian football," said Das.
The league will be kickstarted with TRAU taking on Indian Arrows followed by defending champions Gokulam Kerala FC facing Churchill Brothers.