Season's unpredictability, competitiveness could woo corporates: I-League CEO Sunando Dhar

"A team struggling at the bottom beating any big team on any given day is something that is drawing the crowd, got people talking about it."

Season's unpredictability, competitiveness could woo corporates: I-League CEO Sunando Dhar

Panchkula: The twists and turns, which characterised the business end of this I-League season, could help Indian football "woo corporate giants" and strike lucrative sponsorship deals in the coming times, league CEO Sunando Dhar said on Tuesday.

The mix of "unpredictability and competitiveness" coupled with the sheer dint of players' performance have quelled fears about the event drifting into irrelevance and obscurity in the face of competition from the corporate-backed Indian Super League (ISL).

"The uniqueness of this year's I-League is obviously the competitiveness and unpredictability. A team struggling at the bottom beating any big team on any given day is something that is drawing the crowd, got people talking about it."

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) employee was referring to giant-killers Gokulam Kerala FC, whose stunning run left contenders Minerva Punjab FC and East Bengal in their wake, and the three-way title race tantalisingly poised.

The league, though, went down to the wire last year too.

The arrival of another debutant, Neroca FC, who also have a mathematical chance of winning the silverware, has added another dimension to the event that was once on the verge of being dubbed moribund.

"Look at Minerva they have got four or five sponsors, a club which didn't do that well last year still manage to get sponsors and they have managed to make such a fantastic turnaround this year. I am sure the sponsors would be very happy with these developments and more and more can come in"Dhar said.

He also picked Chennai City and Gokulam Kerala as examples of how to develop the game from scratch.

"Look at the newer clubs like Chennai and Gokulam, they have a few sponsors and they are also investing from their own pockets into infrastructure, into grass-root development, which is a very refreshing change. All this is good for Indian football," Dhar said.

The I-League has held its own while taking on a product that is armed with big money, celebrity owners and overseas stars. The likes of Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane, currently plying their trade in the ISL, though, are well past their prime.

"I think the quality on the field of play has also been good, younger players are fighting for it, the passion is more, the dedication is more, their intensity is being appreciated by everyone," Dhar said.

"I am not a technical person, but I would say there is a difference (between I-League and ISL) in the team budget. But quality-wise whichever tactical person that I have spoken to they are saying that the quality of play is at par," he added.

He said the exuberance and the willingness of the unheralded ones to make a mark, too, have powered the I-League.

Dhar said, "Obviously, with the two leagues being run simultaneously, this has given an opportunity to additional Indian players a chance to play in top league. These guys have immense hunger to prove themselves and I think that?s driving the teams and also the league."

Having one league in the future remains a subject of discussion and the AIFF administrator said they are still working on various possibilities.

"I don't want to put extra pressure on every one of us by giving a date, but we are working towards it. We have taken help from FIFA and AFC, it's not as easy people from outside think, things are complicated, there are contractual issues also which need to be taken into consideration."

"But people who are in any way related to football administration or the clubs would all agree that we need to have one league. Whether it's going to happen next or take a year extra or two, that needs to be looked into, but definitely down the year there would be one league."

Traditional heavyweights Mohun Bagan and East Bengal pulled out of the ISL race last year after their three-point demand, including franchise fee waiver, was not entertained.          

Asked about it, Dhar said, "On one side there are new clubs who are backed by deep pockets and on the other there are the legacy clubs, so obviously, there has to be a fine balance. It's not very easy. We are trying to see what is best for Indian football."