India's biggest domestic sports competition starts on Friday with a whimper. The bang around it died after the first edition of the National League 15 years ago but it continued to be an event Prime Ministers graced, multinational companies sponsored and cheerleaders added zing to. In its current avatar, therefore, I-League IV looks a lot more stripped down than its predecessors.
Consider this: one day before the start, TV rights haven't been sold and there is no title sponsor.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) and its marketing partners have parted but no one's come on board yet making the league look like it's staying alive but only just.
The numbers though still make impressive reading.
The league spans 182 matches and is spread over six months during which teams often must adjust from near-zero temperatures in Punjab to maritime Goa or Kerala in three days' time.
It offers total prize money of Rs 1.87 crore, has a budget of nearly Rs 11 crore and sometimes draws crowds of a lakh.
And guess what, a team which couldn't survive the chop last season made close to Rs 1 crore through gate sales alone.
"We will have a title sponsor and matches will be televised. It's unfortunate that things aren't in place from the first day but it will soon be," Sunando Dhar, the I-League's first CEO, told Hindustan Times from New Delhi on Thursday.
The unavailability of India players for nearly two months robs the event of further gloss. "The league will really begin once they (India players) are back," said Chirag United's technical director Subroto Bhattacharya on Thursday.
"I am willing to bet that I can force any team to a draw," Bhattacharya said.
The comment came by way of taking forward his argument of an overall slip in standards, quite the opposite of what this India-wide competition was supposed to spawn.
"That's because no one's grooming players. Football academies - proper ones, not like the ones Mohun Bagan and their like claim to run - are the only way out," said the former
Mohun Bagan legend under whom Chirag United have become a force in domestic football.
Till then foreigners will continue to make the difference, Bhattacharya said, and Dhar agreed. One of them, Jose Barreto will be the League's most capped player and Mohun Bagan's pole star.
Another, Trevor James Morgan, will look to rekindle the magic that got East Bengal to their best start this millennium. A third, Ranty Martins, showed with a hattrick on Wednesday that Dempo can count on him for goals as will Churchill Brothers on that big gifted goal-scoring machine called Okolie Odafa.
And like Shillong last season, Kohlapur and Kannur will be the new venues this time.
Dhar attributed the lack of buzz after all these years to a collective sense of failure.
"It will take a collective effort to pull this around now. You can question the pace of change but not the intention," he said. Past winners of the I-League