All set for I-League

Indian football is all set to enter a new era as the second edition of the I-League will kick off from tomorrow. The I-League was launched last year as its predecessor, the National Football League (NFL) received largely lukewarm responses from both fans as well as pundits, despite being India’s first national league set up. Although the country has had a rich footballing history of more than hundred years, it was never in the limelight due to the popularity of cricket as well as it being reserved to a few pockets like Goa, Bengal, Kerala and Punjab. Goa, Punjab, and Kerala have all had their own leagues but a nationwide league was not a reality till 1996 when the NFL was launched. But even the NFL couldn’t really bring any help to Indian football. None of the clubs had any proper home grounds. Since most games were played during weekdays, the stadiums remained more or less empty except for big clashes like East Bengal- Mohun Bagan. But the biggest problem was the non-cooperation from the state associations of Bengal and Goa. The associations wanted their own leagues to be given more importance than the NFL. Also the matches were not properly televised. As a result, the clubs remained semi-pro or amateur. The problems were reflected in India’s international matches, as the team saw their rankings plunge to as low as even 160. Eventually it lead to the demise of the NFL itself as the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided to replace it with a Pro setup after recommendation from the Asian Football Council.

There is a lot to look forward from the I-League for fans, especially after the national team’s victories at the Nehru Cup and the AFC Challenge. The duration of the league will be from September 2008 To April 2009, much like the European Leagues. Since the matches are on Saturdays and Sundays, decent crowds can be expected. This year 14 teams are in the fray, two more than last year. Current champions, Dempo are the team to beat. Mahindra United are strong favorites as well. Despite dominating the defunct NFL, Calcutta giants, East Bengal are currently going through a lean patch having lost the Calcutta League to arch rivals Mohun Bagan. Still, they can be counted as serious contenders, along with Bagan. The Goan clubs, especially Churchill Brothers and Sporting club de Goa as well as JCT are looking strong. Mohammedan Sporting and Vasco are back to the top flight after a brief hiatus and will be hoping to stay there. It is a matter of survival for newbies United FC and Mumbai FC.

Indian football of late has seen many a new talent. Players like East Bengal’s Sunil Chetri and Mehrajuddin Wadoo etc have shown there is something to look forward beyond Bhaichung Bhutia. Bhaichung will be turning up for Mohun Bagan this season. Steven Dias and NP Pradeep are staying at Mahindra after the controversy surrounding their now canceled move to East Bengal. Other Indian players to look out for are Mahesh Gawli, Renedy Singh, Subrata Paul, (all East Bengal), Climax Lawrence, Clifford Miranda and Samir Naik (Dempo), Anwar Ali (JCT), Gourmangi Singh (Churchill), Abhishek Yadav (Mumbai) among others. This year too the league has a good number of foreign talent. Dempo’s African duo of Ranty Martins and Mboyo Iyomi are tough nuts to crack. Brazilian forward Edmilson will be seen in East Bengal colors. Mohun Bagan’s veteran Brazilian Jose Barreto is back for another season. Most of the clubs have new coaches. Bagan hace recruited Moroccan Karim Bencherifa while Mumbai is managed by Brit David Booth. Former assistant coach of India, Stanley Rozario is the new guide to East Bengal.

The I-League does promise a lot, but the AIFF has to make sure the promises are kept. Teams still have to share stadia. Salt Lake at Calcutta is shared by four clubs whereas The Cooperage in Mumbai is shared by three. There are also many critics to the import of foreign players. Although the AIFF has maintained they will be gradually phased out, most of the clubs are still afloat only because of these foreign players.

1 Response to “All set for I-League”

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