Finale of the 2015 I-League couldn’t have been scripted any better. Fans had to wait until the dying moments of the final Gameweek to discover the eventual champions as well as the team that was relegated. While the top of the table clash was fought in Bengaluru, the battle for survival took place in Goa with five teams staring down the barrel at kick-off.
When it was all done and dusted, I-League CEO Mr. Sunando Dhar later pointed out – fans had witnessed the most captivating finish to the league in a long time. 21,000 spectators filled Bengaluru’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium for the winner takes all clash between Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC. Incredibly, 8000 of those were travelling fans.
This year, the league has a different feel to it. Pune FC, Bharat FC and Royal Wahingdoh ended their association with India’s premier football league in the run-up to the 2016 season. With Dempo demoted to the 2nd division, Aizwal FC earned promotion to the top tier. There is great excitement surrounding the new boys, with their home games expected to be played in front of packed crowds in Mizoram.
The I-League has been reduced to a nine-team competition but the anticipation, especially of Indian football lovers, hasn’t diminished. As a new season kicks off, here are five interesting developments fans can keep an eye out for.
Bengaluru vs Bengal duel
Despite the poisonously negative narrative that continues to surround I-League and Indian football, the last two years have seen some signs of positive change. None more so than the emergence of Bengaluru FC and the resurgence of Mohun Bagan – one a torchbearer of India’s footballing tradition, while the other a pioneer for professionalism in club football.
After Ashley Westwood’s side won the league in their first ever attempt, Mohun Bagan made sure there was no encore in 2015. If last season is anything to go by, the two sides go in as favorites this time around as well. Moreover, the duo has made some key additions to respective squads in pre-season, which was relatively free from injury scares.
However, Kolkata derby remains the most important game on the I-League calendar. Having won the Calcutta Football League, East Bengal will be buoyant mood ahead of this season's campaign. Robert Lalthlamuana’s team is the dark horse that could upset the apple cart this year.
Fortunes of Indian strikers
One problem that has long hampered the development of homegrown strikers is the overreliance of I-League clubs on foreigners. With all clubs opting for an overseas player of pedigree to deliver them goals, Indian strikers are often sidelined.
This pattern has resulted in a shortage of quality front men for the national team as well. Right from the league’s debut season, no Indian player has topped the individual goal scoring charts.
Odafa Okolie and Ranti Martins completed consecutive hat-trick wins for Golden Boot awards for the first six years of the league. There was an exception in 2014 when Sunil Chhetri finished top, tied with Darryl Duffy and Cornell Glen with 14 goals. However, it was back to business as usual in 2015 with Martins winning back his award with a 16-goal tally.
Only seven goals were enough for Thongkhosiem Haokip to finish as the top Indian scorer last year, indicating the gap between homegrown and foreign talent. Now with Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Robin Singh (currently injured) in red-hot form, Indian strikers could have a much greater impact in 2016.
With the ISL getting a thumbs up from fans, the future of the I-league is shrouded in mystery. Though India is likely to have a unified league spanning eight to nine months of the year, a roadmap to make it a reality hasn’t yet been presented to the stakeholders by AIFF.
However the 2015 season of the I-League bellied fears of fans deserting India’s official league for football in its new avatar. Television ratings rose by 6% and an average of 35,000 fans watched Mohun Bagan’s home games last year. Compared to previous editions, the 2015 one was definitely a greater success.
The league needs to build on that momentum this year. The buzz created by ISL’s second season is bound to rub off on the I-League as well. The scaling up of competitiveness in Indian football is likely to have a positive impact on the league and numbers could further improve this season.
Exploits of the debutants
With Pune FC and Bharat FC shutting down their first team operations, DSK Shivajians in the only Pune-based team in this year’s I-League. Bharat FC, despite AIFF’s signing a contract with AIFF that guaranteed immunity from relegation in the first season, opted to shut shop after a failed campaign.
Shivajians, making their first foray into the I-league, will be determined to avoid a similar fate as their fellow Punekars. The new entrants have a tie up with English giants Liverpool at the junior level. The superb facilities at the 3000-acre DSK Dream City for the players are beginning to produce results.
Lallianzuala Chhangte’s heroics at the national level are proof that DSK’s focus on youth development could hold them in good stead this season. Crucially, they have also signed experienced players in the form of Subrata Pal and Zohib Amiri. Leading the first-timers will be one of Indian football’s best coaches Derrick Pereira who did the I-League and Federation Cup double with Mahindra United in 2005.
With Dempo relegated, the onus of presenting Goa’s challenge for the I-League rests with Salgaocar FC and Sporting Clube de Goa. Both teams were part of the relegation scrap last season, only to narrowly escape the dreaded drop. It is no secret that owners are expecting a marked improvement in the performances of their respective sides in 2016. Sporting will be looking for their maiden crown, while Salgaocar their third.
From the current squad composition, the Flaming Oranje appear to have a better shot at the title than the Greens. While Salgaocar have a decent squad, the lack of depth could lead to their downfall. Many of their players were in action at the ISL, hence fatigue could play a role as well.
Fresh from their triumph in the Goa Pro League, Sporting’s potent attack led by Odafa Okolie has an equally good support cast. The emergence of Rowlin Borges, one of the stars of India’s SAFF Cup triumph, is yet another reason why the Peter Vas-owned side is likely to be a top three contender this season.