I-League: As new season begins, old realities remain
The nineteenth century French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once famously wrote, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
The adage perhaps aptly sums up the current situation of the I-League as it begins life in the 2019/20 season under new circumstances. Rebranded in 2007 from the old National Football League, the I-League finds itself, for the first time in its history, relegated from its top-flight status in India’s football structure, after the Indian Super League’s (ISL) coup d’état earlier this year.
But how significantly does it change things for the I-League? Having already played second fiddle to the ISL since the latter came into being in 2014, the I-League losing its top-tier status is simply putting an official stamp to old reality.
“As far as we’re concerned, it’s the same league as last year. So, for us, nothing has changed,” said Real Kashmir FC coach David Robertson at the club’s jersey launch earlier this month. His thoughts were echoed by most of the players present at I-League’s season launch in New Delhi last week. “It makes no difference to us or our fans. All we want is the I-League title. The club is the same as last season, our fans are the same as last season,” said East Bengal captain Lalrindika Ralte.
Like Ralte, players at some of the other I-League clubs exuded confidence about a possible title charge this season. That confidence has been bolstered by long pre-season campaigns, which was further prolonged by I-League’s delayed start—the league was supposed to start in late-October but uncertainty over its status saw it being pushed back by a month. “We began our preparations four months back. This should be the longest pre-season in history,” joked Robertson.
However, there have been a few positive changes for the clubs, most notably, a change in the broadcaster. D Sport will take over TV duties from Star India, who are stakeholders in Football Sports Development Limited, which runs the ISL. This has led to more TV friendly kickoff timings—many games are scheduled to start at 5 pm and 7 pm—compared to last season, when the I-League took a backseat to ISL’s broadcast plans.
Kozhikode-based Gokulam Kerala have emerged as early favourites for the title. The club brought back Santiago Varela as head coach in the summer, with the Spaniard having left Gokulam just before the start of the previous campaign.
With the formidable duo of Henry Kisekka of Uganda an Trinidad & Tobago’s Marcus Joseph leading the team’s attack, they shouldn’t have a problem converting chances.
When asked if Gokulam are among the title contenders, experienced defender Dharmaraj Ravanan made no secret of what the club is aiming for this season. “Yes of course, why not. We have a good understanding in the team. We have won the (2019) Durand Cup, so we are well prepared,” he said.
“(But) the last three seasons have shown that anything can happen (in the I-League). All the teams are strong and many are good enough to compete for the title.”
Defending champions Chennai City lost one of the key members of their victorious 2018-19 campaign, Nestor Gordillo, to Hyderabad FC and have brought in an experienced I-League player in Japanese midfielder Katsumi Yusa. How they cope with Gordillo’s loss will be seen over the course of the season but Chennai remain one of the main title contenders.
Pedro Manzi, last season’s joint top-scorer in the league, said defending the title will be easier said than done. “I think we should all forget about the last season and only think about this new one. We will try to win the title but first we need to forget that we are champions,” Manzi said.
“We continue playing the same way we did last season, even though we have new players. But I think more teams will be competing for the title this time. Winning I-League will be more difficult than last season.”
Robertson’s Real Kashmir too have featured in the pre-season title talk after their impressive third-place finish in what was their debut season in 2018-19. The Snow Leopards’ robust backline leaked the least number of goals last season. Despite the communication lockdown in Kashmir and early snowfall that temporarily impeded the team’s training, they have played games across the country in preparation for the I-League.
KOLKATA EXPECTS MORE
Among the two Kolkata clubs—East Bengal and Mohun Bagan— expectations will be somewhat toned down after last three seasons’ failed title bids. The same may not hold true for their fans.
“Every year we lose the championship towards the end,” Ralte said. “Last season we had the title till the 75th minute of the last matchday and lost it from there. This time we are celebrating our club’s 100th anniversary, so it would be great if we can win it for our fans,” he said.
Bagan’s Spanish midfielder Joseba Beitia, one of the new recruits under head coach Kibu Vicuna, said the fans will expect nothing less than the title, something he and his teammates will try to deliver.
Neither of the Kolkata giants managed to even win the Calcutta Football League (CFL) this season, so they will need to step up a few gears in order to bring the I-League title to Kolkata.
Aizawl FC and Punjab FC – the latter rebranded from Minerva Punjab ahead of this season – had won the title in 2017 and 2018, respectively. They, however, finished in the bottom half of the table last season. With many young players being promoted from their academy teams, they are not expected to be title contenders but could serve up a few surprises during the season.
Imphal-based Neroca and TRAU, the latter making their I-League debut, will bring added spice to the league with their local derby. Gift Raikhan is back as head coach at Neroca, whom he had led to a second-place finish in 2018. Their city rivals too will hope to impress under new coach Dimitris Dimitriou.
The All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) developmental team, Indian Arrows, will be under a new coach this season – former India international S Venkatesh. He will look improve upon the impressive eighth place finish the team achieved under predecessor Floyd Pinto last season.
Former champions Churchill Brothers have been forced into a late coaching change over regulatory restrictions on Edward Ansah’s African coaching licence. New appointee Bernardo Tavares has previously worked with famous Portuguese coaches like Jose Mourinho, Carlos Queiroz, among others. The club has a few notable names in the squad, including last season’s joint-top scorer Willis Plaza, and will look to better last campaign’s fourth-place finish.