In the afterglow of another ISL season, it would be easy to view the I-League starting Saturday as a careworn competition comprising unsettled teams, two of whom got ready at less than a month’s notice and one where three of the 10 sides are immune from relegation. The evaluation though wouldn’t be wholly accurate.
That is because despite its future being complicated and present far from perfect, the I-League continues to be the real McCoy. ISL3 may have got 216 million viewers, up nine million from 2015, according to a media release by the organisers, but it is the I-League winners who get India’s entry to Asia. The weight given to performance in AFC Cup and the Asian Champions League qualifiers in determining a country’s ranking is 70% at the moment.
And the way India rallied behind Bengaluru FC last term showed why Kerala Blasters’ coach Steve Coppell wondered right through ISL3 whether it was a three-month extravaganza or the beginning of something more serious. Till the merger becomes a reality --- and that’s the complicated part --- such questions will keep being asked.
“What the ISL has also done is drive traffic towards the I-League because its viewership has increased by around 40 percent,” said Kushal Das, the general secretary of the All India Football Federation, over the phone from New Delhi on Friday. “And new teams from Punjab and Chennai give the league a more pan-India presence.”
With India playing the 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers from March 28, the players will also seek to draw positive energy from the ISL. CK Vineeth, whose late entry transformed Kerala Blasters in ISL3, would be one. The Bengaluru FC front third player has said Coppell transformed him from being lazy while defending and would be keen to show that to India coach Stephen Constantine.
Left-backs Sena Ralte (Bengaluru FC) and Jerry Lalrinzuala (DSK Shivajians) would be two more wanting to tell Constantine that they can play for the senior team. Goalie Debjit Majumder would hope to replicate his ISL form in the I-League for Mohun Bagan and draw the national coach’s attention. Ditto Majumer’s teammates Kean Lewis and Anas Edathodika. Dhanpal Ganesh (Chennai City FC) will strive to prove that he has recovered from the ACL injury on national duty in September 2015 and that Chennaiyin FC coach Marco Materazzi was wrong not to give him a game in ISL3.
After ISL though, the players haven’t had much time to settle with their teams. “Some played a lot of football for four months and needed rest; others played no football for the last four months… The last time I was with East Bengal (2012-13), the squad assembled in August and stayed till the end of the season,” said East Bengal coach Trevor Morgan.
That’s not the only problem. Key imports haven’t arrived and many of those who have aren’t match fit. Minerva FC technical director Colm Toal may join only after their first match and the newbies, though immune from relegation, could pick only players cast off by other clubs given that it was on December 11, 2016, that their bids were approved. Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and reigning champions Bengaluru FC look slightly more settled than the rest but then as Morgan pointed out, citing Leicester City’s example, titles aren’t won on paper.