“When is the I-League starting?” “Are Indian football league any good?”
“Wasn’t the Kolkata Derby that took place last week a fixture of the I-League 2018-19”
“What do you mean by the total number of teams have not been fixed yet and the fixtures are not out too ”
This is the conversation I had a with a die-hard fan of a certain European football club. He has walls of his room adorned with posters of Class of ’92, has a David De Gea wallpaper on his lock screen but he couldn’t care any less about the state football. I don’t blame him. For the AIFF keeps finding new ways to succumb to fetishes of Richie Richs of India and leave Indian Football in absolute shambles.
The Fall & Fall of I-league:
In 2014, IMG and Reliance Media, along with Star India announced an ambitious Indian Super League. What more? AIFF chairman Praful Patel was at the press conference and heralded this as the as the new dawn in Indian football. This left the Indian football fans, whatever were left then, in absolute despair. Questions started to arise. Is this the official league? What does that leave the I-league with? Can players play in both the leagues? And thus began the ‘new dawn’ in India Football amidst confusion, drama and chaos. The ISL kicked off in October 2014 in an Olympic-esque opening ceremony attended by the who’s who of Bollywood, sporting fraternity, politicians alike. Yes, Bollywood you read that right.
Now, with the fifth season of ISL beginning in about a fortnight from now, what does that leave the I-League with? We have a look.
I-league 2017-18 was played out between 10 teams. Neroca FC emerged as the champions in a season which was alive till the final kick of the ball. As perfect a finish as any league could hope for. Neroca FC and the two Kolkatan clubs were in the run for the title even till the final whistle of their respective fixtures. This meant that previous year’s champions Aizawl FC finished as the fourth-placed team. Churchill Brothers and Indian Arrows finished 9th and 10th respectively. This also meant that Churchill Brothers were relegated. Indian Arrows who finished last survived the relegation because they are an AIFF development team.
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The Goan Problem :
On the back of the 2018-19 season, threat looms large for Goa and its footballing image. For one, this could be the first season in Indian Football league without any club from Goa.
Towards the end of 2016, the traditional clubs of Goa decided to pull out of the I League citing the proposed reforms in the league. AIFF apparently planned to make ISL the top tier competition with the I League teams competing at the second division. These speculations meant that Salgaocar FC, Dempo, Sporting Clube de Goa had to pull out. Only a few teams wouldn’t be pulling out had the reason being ‘restructuring’. Would it? In the same year the three clubs pulled out, Dempo celebrated its golden jubilee and Mr.Praful Patel was invited to be a part of the function.
Talk about wrong timing and irony. Patel, speaking at the function, said that exceptions could be made to avoid Dempo playing in the second division. Exceptions were made the previous year when Aizawl FC were made to play in the top tier instead of asking them to work their way up to the top. Here you have a team who refused to play in the league and an year later as the head of the football federation of the country you ask them to be back again stating things will be resolved in 2-3 years. Seriously. What?
The Real problems
The Goan clubs pulling out had little to do with the restructuring as much as it had to do with lack of revenues. Surely not a good thing when you have to clamour for space against the likes of Robert Pires, Luis Garcia, Marco Materazzi, David James. Let alone competing against the superstars of cricket or just any cricket match played by India. There are hardly any promos before the start of a season. Hardly any clarity on the fixtures, the number of teams taking part, the number of players that can play in a XI (Okay this is taking it too far).
The point here is that this has not just been 1-2 years of problems coming crashing down in an instant. These have been carefully crafted by years of neglect and mismanagement by the federation. You know what they mean when they say ‘Don’t play with the fire for too long. You might end up burning yourself’ or in this case you might you might end up immolating yourself. The only bright part of the I-League for the past few years has been the Kolkata Derby. And when does it get played? On a weekend with a 2:30 PM kickoff. On a sunny day, I would say at least an I-League match gets space on TV. But not today. Well and truly, the only bright spot of the I-League has been the Kolkatan clubs and its fans. If not for them, the I-League would be a lost cause.
Indian football league: I-league and ISL merger ?
Come April 2018, reports surface in media that FIFA plans to put an Asian ban on AIFF if the I-League-ISL merger did not take place by 2019-20. As if things couldn’t get any worse. AIFF, two days later, deny reports that a 4-member team of FIFA and AFC were expediting the merger process. With a little more than a fortnight to go for the first match of ISL season 5, AIFF is as miserable as ever on the merger.
Henry Winter wrote a book titled ’50 years of Hurt’ which was a take on England’s world cup agony and how they haven’t won it for the last 5 decades. If anyone came and wrote a book on Indian Football and its timeline, it would be titled on the same lines. Only that it has to be more brutal. To give the readers a raw sense of the despair that every Indian football fan has had to endure in the independent India.
But all’s good that’s looking good because Nita Ambani has started coming on Star network and says ‘Let’s Football.’