The website of the I-League sported a curious look till the day that the fixtures for the 2017-’18 season were announced.
Bengaluru FC, having moved to the Indian Super League four months ago, Mumbai FC, relegated from the league and DSK Shivajians, having folded up league operations, were still listed as clubs in India’s top division. Yes, still ‘top division’, because the prized AFC Champions League slot is awarded to the winners of the I-League.
The CL slot, the perseverance of a few clubs and a dedicated fanbase seem to be the only factors for running the league. The layout of the website, though nothing more than lackadaisical web management, is symptomatic of the manner in which the league is run, to be conducted on a obligatory basis.
The fixtures were released 12 days prior to the opening match and Mohun Bagan, Gokulam FC and Aizawl have less than two weeks to book their flight tickets and come up with hotel reservations before their first matches.
There seems to be no clear reason for the delay as the clubs and the All India Football Federation continue to blame each other for the chaotic manner in which the league seems to be kicking off. A major point of contention also seem to be the 2 pm kickoffs.
Although the months of April and May, comparatively hotter months, will not see any matches this time around, the major drawback of hosting matches at 2pm on weekdays will see a good chunk of the working population miss out.
Temperatures in all the proposed venues, Delhi included, did not cross 32 degrees Celsius this February but that has not stopped observers from wondering about the standard of the game. The Federation Cup, held earlier this year, also provided a good reason as to why scheduling was such an important yet highly ignored aspect of the Indian footballing calendar.
Also, an important point to note is that five of the seven days in gameweeks will be utilised for matches. The Field had observed last season that the ISL risked viewer and player burnout with such clumped scheduling. The I-League, without the marketing reach of the ISL, could have made its biggest faux pas yet.
The only reason the two leagues still exist and are running concurrently is Aizawl’s barnstorming victory last season, which put a spanner in the works for AIFF’s plans to induct Bengaluru FC, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan into the ISL, thus making it the first division.
Aizawl’s win made it difficult to justify the relegation of the national champions to the second division. The quota of foreigners has increased to six this time around, as Kolkata’s top two were unwilling to take the chance that a club with a fraction of their budget will upset them once again.
Not only does this stretch the budget of the smaller teams, it could possibly mean a return of the early 2000s, when the National Football League was flooded with sub-par foreigners who took up a majority of attacking slots in teams. More often that not, it did not make for exciting viewership as far as the fans were concerned.
The justification for the increased foreigner quota seems to be that the I-League should be at par with the ISL but this is a case of the clubs driving the league into the ground. While it may or may not make for greater viewing with regard to the technical level of football, the connect that I-League clubs enjoy due to their local players gets withered away.
Of course, this fits snugly into the federation’s original plans, as revamped East Bengal and Mohun Bagan squads seem unlikely to slip up for the second time in a row, especially with BFC out of the picture.
The top two may have failed in their bids to enter the ISL this season, but it seems like a matter of time before the Kolkata duo enter the three-year old league, according to ISL insiders.
While Minerva Punjab, Chennai City and Gokulam FC have joined the I-League in the last two seasons, DSK Shivajians are the latest in a long line of clubs to pull out. Bharat FC, Pune FC, Rangdajied United, Royal Wahingdoh are just some of the clubs in that list.
The standard bearers, BFC shifting to the ISL, must give everyone an indication of where the power centre is currently located. The presence of the Indian Arrows and teams from Kerala and Manipur augur well but the viability of the league has not improved significantly.
As the seasons have progressed, it has become increasingly hard for optimists to argue that the I-League will sustain itself. Now in it’s 11th season, life seems to have come a full circle for the entity that took over from the defunct National Football League.
Once again, we must hit the 10-year reset button as the I-league is read its last rites. What should have been a follow-up of its most exciting season ever will become a test of survival unless one of the minnows manages to pull off another stunning victory. But will they? Don’t hold your breath.