Sony Norde will be turning out in Mohun Bagan colours yet again when the I-League kicks-off on Saturday.(HT Photo)
Sony Norde will be turning out in Mohun Bagan colours yet again when the I-League kicks-off on Saturday.(HT Photo)

I-League 2017-18 set to kick-off among uncertain future, other talking points

Despite I-League being one of India’s top football competitions, only four of the 10 teams have played more than three seasons.
By Dhiman Sarkar | Hindustan Times, Kolkata
UPDATED ON NOV 24, 2017 10:50 PM IST

Will the I-League continue to rage against the dying of the light or get ready to exit without a whimper? As another season begins on Saturday, the first in the penumbra of the Indian Super League (ISL), this will be among the talking points.

This season there will be a Sony on Star; in a Mohun Bagan shirt when the Haiti international trots out against Minerva Punjab away. There will also be an effort to fast-track India’s under-17 team into manhood, a team from Kerala after 2011, three from the North-east including the first from Manipur and the least number of Indians on the pitch; the I-League’s bid for parity with ISL and also compensate for top Indians migrating to that competition.

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Champions’ squad overhauled

Unwittingly perhaps, the ISL and the I-League look joined at the hips in the way the defending champions have had to reinvent themselves. Aizawl FC open against East Bengal with coach Khalid Jamil on the other side along with Syrian Mahmoud Al-Amnah, who was the team’s midfield heartbeat. Ashutosh Mehta, Jayesh Rane and Albino Gomes too have left along with Brandon Vanlalremdika, Kamo Bayi and Eze Kingsley.

Forward Alfred Jaryan hasn’t and along with Shylo Malsawmtluanga, who returns after a storied career in Kolkata and after staying unsold in the ISL players’ draft, could be important players in a side being rebuilt by Portuguese coach Paulo Meneses.

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Aizawl FC’s fairytale run last season got Fifa president Gianni Infantino to take notice and sucker-punched notions of a merger between leagues. It was also the I-League’s way of showing defiance against otherwise deflating odds.

How the tag of defending champions sits on them would be worth noting as much as the possibility of another team on a Cinderella run. So step on it, Gokulam Kerala and Neroca FC.

Teens against men

Or should we add the teens too? The idea of getting them to gain experience against teams with six foreigners and Indians way older and more physically developed is a double-edged sword. If Indian Arrows have a string of good results, it won’t reflect well on the standard of India’s apex competition. And if they don’t, it could undermine the confidence of players who should be India’s future.

What also needs to be seen is how teams weigh the possibility of representing India in Asia in 2019. The I-League may not stay till then but will the winners look at finishing best in India as an end in itself?

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It is somewhat bizarre that though this is what assures winners of an automatic AFC Cup berth and a shot at the Asian Champions League, compared to the ISL the I-League is thinner on experience. Five of the 10 teams are into their first or second season in an all-India league and the sixth, Aizawl FC, will be playing their third. Contrast that with the ISL where only Jamshedpur FC have less experience.

East Bengal, Mohun Bagan first among equals?

All that should make this the best chance for Mohun Bagan to win their second title or East Bengal their first. Mohun Bagan have had more settling-down pangs than East Bengal, who go into the competition after a record eighth Kolkata league and having been able to keep players such as Arnab Mondal, Mohammed Rafique, Gurwinder Singh and Cavin Lobo from the ISL. But, as Aizawl FC have shown, sometimes reputations aren’t worth the paper it is written on.

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I-League 2017-18

Reigning champions: Aizawl FC

Number of teams: 10

New teams: Neroca FC (promoted), Gokulam Kerala, Indian Arrows

Number of matches: 90

Matches on Star: 90. This is the first time matches are being shown on the Star, which also broadcasts the ISL. Around 36 games have 2pm kick-off. Aizawl FC, Neroca FC don’t have lights.

Prize money: Rs 2.25 crore. Winners get Rs 1 crore, runners-up Rs 60 lakh; 3rd: Rs 40 lakh, 4th: Rs 25 lakh.

Cost of holding I-League: Rs 16 crore (approx). This includes travel and accommodation allowance of Rs 70 lakh for every team and Rs 1 lakh for every home as organisational cost.

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