An American writer once said, “There’s a price to pay if you want to make things better, a price to pay just for leaving things as they are; a price for everything.” It is a fitting phrase for the I-league, India’s premier club football competition, as an entity. Only time will tell whether the Indian Super League was a blessing or blight for Indian football, but the I-league sure had to pay a sizeable price to accommodate this new competition in the country’s footballing calendar. The predecessor of the upcoming season of the I-league, which kicks-off on Saturday, concluded on April 28 last year and it has taken precisely 265 days for the competition to resume its usual course. In this duration, nonetheless, the country’s football is said to have witnessed a renaissance of sorts as both the crowds and the investors expressed a never-seen-before interest in proceedings. Packed stadiums and the fact that the owners of both the finalists of the competition were perhaps the two of the biggest modern-day cricketing icons of India, spoke volumes of how the popularity of the beautiful game has soared in the nation.
Cut to the recently concluded Federation Cup and you could hardly see the same sort of support. Many people didn’t even know the timings of the telecast of these matches. As for the players, the ones who participated in the ISL looked in desperate need of breathers; some others who chose to spend most of the pre-season away from training grounds looked terribly out of shape. But amid this contrasting state of affairs, there was one team which went about things with ridiculous effortlessness. Despite keeping the ISL at an arm’s length, Bengaluru FC showed just why they are touted as the real face of Indian league football with a phenomenal display throughout the Federation cup; ultimately sealing a domestic double in their debut campaign. National and club skipper Sunil Chhetri ended up being the cup’s joint top-scorer and the defense leaked just four goals in all, as the blues converted a six-match undefeated run into a title triumph.
Rewinding to a few months back in time, while the rest of the I-league clubs were either busy with the ISL or enjoying a relatively quite off-season, Ashley Westwood’s BFC were looking at the larger picture and opted to spend the pre-season in Hong Kong and China. The objective was to keep the defending champions match-fit and also to get a feel of what it would be like, playing against other teams from the confederation in the AFC Asian Champions League qualifiers. It paid dividends and the champions kick-started the season with considerable ease than their competitors.
However, as the former Manchester United man Westwood himself quoted after the Federation Cup conquest, history means nothing in football. And so will be the case when the eleven competing teams battle it out for the 2014-15 season of the I-league. The defending champions will be wary of challenges that would face them in the form of familiar foes. First on this list is the three-time champion side Dempo who gave the blues a run for their money in the final of the Fed Cup last week as well. Having acquired the services of as many as seven new faces, including Costa Rican midfielder Carlos Hernandez, the Goa side that finished fourth last season are the ones expected to be in the title race. Durand Cup holders Salgaocar FC and Sporting Clube de Goa complete the trio of teams representing the Konkan state of Goa which has been home to all but one title wins of the I-league era.
Leading the line for Kolkata-outfits are the three-time runners-up, who finished four points adrift the top at second last season, East Bengal. Despite enduring a forgetful Federation Cup show, the perennial heavyweights of Indian football will bear the Bengal flag along with their old rivals Mohun Bagan, who themselves are fighting to rise over the controversies that have surrounded them over the recent past.
Elsewhere, the hopefuls from Shillong comprise of the Shillong Lajong unit, boosted by the services of last season’s joint highest goalscorer Cornel Glen, and the newly promoted Royal Wahingdoh. Teams from the two biggest footballing hubs of Maharashtra — Mumbai FC, Pune FC and the direct entrant to the fold, Pune-based Bharat FC — complete the set of teams that will battle it out for the I-league this season.
Talking about the top flight structure of the upcoming campaign, it is worth recalling the events from last season that shaped up this composition. Things first started disintegrating when Mohammedan Sporting, the Kolkata giants who were relegated on the final day of the previous season, went bankrupt and brought an end to all their footballing activities owing to the financial crisis. One of the oldest Indian clubs founded in 1887, Mohammedan found no takers and is now defunct. In a stunning development that was to follow, two-time champions Churchill Brothers were thrown out of the I-League for at least one year along with three other teams — Kolkata’s United SC and Mohammedan; as well as Shillong’s Rangadjied United — for failing to fulfil the AIFF’s club licensing criteria. This led to the number of teams being cut short to 10 from 13 with Bharat FC joining the bandwagon as a direct entry and completing the final 11.
Subsequently, after experiencing its share of highs and lows since the final whistle of the previous season of the I-league, Indian football is finally ready to step into what could potentially be a defining campaign for the country’s future in the sport. Among the leading positives has been the revolutionary emergence of BFC over the past 18 months or so. Within no time, they have become a near-unstoppable force in India’s domestic football and will be hoping to become the first team to successfully defend the I-league. Additional Asian games will be a first-time for the blues and their opponents will hope that these extra fixtures wear them down. Nevertheless, manager Westwood has no hesitation in claiming that his players are trained well enough to play a few more matches in the season and in turn throws the challenge right back at his opponents. Can anyone stop them?
Opening day fixtures include a replay of the recent Federation Cup final between Bengaluru FC and Dempo soon after Salgaocar FC host Pune FC.