January 7, 2017 4:28:26 am
More than those particpating, the pre-season of the 10th edition of the I-League has been dominated by the teams that have chosen to give the tournament a miss. Here are a few talking points ahead of the new season:
Dempo, Salgaocar and Sporting Clube de Goa are all poets of their own fall. But the cold manner in which the All India Football Federation (AIFF) have let them go has come as a surprise to many. It has also raised questions about the AIFF’s intentions vis-a-vis the I-League. The three Goan giants pulled out of the I-League, saying there was no point to continue playing a league which has ‘no future’. Their grievances aren’t unfounded. The emergence of the Indian Super League (ISL) pushed I-League further back in AIFF’s priorities. But the AIFF feels the club’s did not do enough to stay relevant. “If FC Goa (the ISL club) can manage a full house for every match, then why is it that not even 100 people turn up to watch these legacy clubs?” an AIFF official fumed.
It’s a thought-provoking question. But the AIFF cannot claim innocense. That Dempo too decided to pull out, given that their owner is an AIFF vice-president, speaks volumes of the state of affairs. There was a risk of this I-League season having no club from Goa, which was unthinkable a few years ago when four sides from the coastal state was a norm. Luckily for them, Churchill Brothers agreed to join in after being booted out a few years ago for failing to meeting basic licensing criteria.
It wasn’t a surprise that Goan football is in dire condition. The writing had been on the wall for quite some time. But the AIFF, knowingly or unknowingly, ignored it.
Instead, the AIFF wants us to believe that the league is in a healthy shape. They are quick to point that the league will be played in nine Indian cities, insisting it is a sign of its spreading ‘popularity.’ But they forget that it is just a stop-gap, last-minute solution to ensure the league takes place.
Regardless, the league’s return to Chennai (for the first time since NFL days) and Punjab (after five years) is among the few bright spots. The AIFF hopes the Chennai City experiment will be as successful as their Bengaluru FC gamble. Chennai has shown it is hungry for top-flight football with some high attendances in the ISL. But it will be a huge challenge for the club, and the AIFF, to ensure a similar interest in a league that is not as glamorous and is bereft of the star quotient and the entertainment value, which dragged many to the ‘Marina Arena’.
For Minerva, the task will be tougher. They are yet to find a sponsor and their choice of home ground – Ludhiana – has raised quite a few eye-brows. The team’s owner Ranjit Bajaj has said he will get Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh and a few Punjabi singers to the stadium to attract the locals. For how long, though, will these keep the interest alive is anyone’s guess.The two new additions surely add variety to the league. But to expect that they’ll do a Bengaluru is a bit far-fetched. Lest we forget, for every Bengaluru there is also a Bharat FC and Mumbai Tigers.
Talking about Mumbai, let’s take a moment to focus on the other club from the city, Mumbai FC. Perennially battling relegation, Mumbai parted ways with their coach Khalid Jamil after seven seasons. Jamil worked at Mumbai on a shoestring. Taking into account the facilities and cash at his disposal, it’s miraculous that he – and manager Henry Picardo – even managed to keep Mumbai afloat.
But under Jamil, Mumbai were accused of being too defensive. That should change under Santosh Kashyap, who succeeds the former India international. Kashyap’s sides play with flair and positivity that, no matter the result, it is a joy to watch them. He almost won the league with Royal Wahingdoh a couple of seasons ago and made Aizawl look much better than they actually were last term. Jamil, on the other hand, has joined Aizawl. A meeting between the two clubs with inter-changed personalities should be a fun fixture this season.
Despite the new additions the league and new-look teams, the favourites for the titles will remain the same. Under Albert Roca, Bengaluru FC will be keen to the raise the bar domestically and continentally. They have made some valuable additions to their squad and it once again makes them the team to beat.
Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are the only two sides which look like have the calibre to challenge Bengaluru. The Kolkata giants, though, will once again have to play the derby in Silliguri, given that the Salt Lake Stadium is being renovated for the U-17 World Cup Express news service
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