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I-League: ‘People’s league’ ready to take demotion in stride

Sayan Mukherjee

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I-League 2019-20
India coach Igor Stimac (centre, foreground) with I-League players at its launch party in New Delhi on Thursday. Photos: @Twitter

New Delhi: Reduced in stature it might be, but the interest in I-League remains intact, if not enhanced due to its forced demotion.

What else could interest the media in covering the launch party of 2019-20 edition of a tournament that is India’s official second division league now. Over 90 media persons took the trouble of attending the event.

Does a second division football league command such an interest from the media in any other country?

Possibly not. And therein lies the charm of the I-League, battered, bruised, neglected and practically abandoned but still standing.

The attractive quotient of the league remains in its unpredictable title race, five different teams winning in the last five editions, eight in 12 editions since it was renamed in 2007-08. The 13th edition will feature 11 teams from eight states and a Union Territory, Manipur’s Trau FC being the latest entrant.

“I-League clubs have a key role to play. They are essential for the development of Indian football,” the All India Football Federation (AIFF) secretary Kushal Das said on Thursday.

A new broadcast partner and production company has brought in added enthusiasm. All 110 matches will be beamed, eight cameras telecasting each match from each venue.

“High-end production tools and technology will be used to broadcast matches which could help increase the consumption of football,” he added.

“It is important to have I-League clubs in Indian football’s ecosystem now that a future roadmap has been formulated,” a senior official with AIFF’s marketing partners told Sports Lounge.

In recent years, title races have gone to the wire, with Mohun Bagan, Aizawl, Minerva and Chennai City all pipping their nearest rivals to the post on final matchdays.

These last-day finishes have been the highlight of the league, increasing its profile and commanding media attention. Several second division teams have performed well after getting promotion, Punjab FC winning in their second appearance and Real Kashmir finishing third on their debut last season.

Their performances have bolstered the belief of new entrants Trau FC, who will engage in a duel, with their crosstown rivals Neroca FC, which is being promoted as the ‘Imphal Derby’, on the lines of the age-old ‘Kolkata Derby’ between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.

Despite its diminished status, an added incentive for Indian players could be national coach Igor Stimac’s assurance that notable performances could open the national team’s doors for players.

Stimac had earlier spoken highly about I-League’s traditional value said he could travel to venues to watch select matches.

“I-League is as important as the Indian Super League (ISL). The I-League players could be up for selection to the national team. It is up to them how they are going to present themselves,” Stimac said after unveiling the glittering trophy.

Players of all teams flown in for the launch party unanimously declared their aim of winning the title. Apart from traditional favourites Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, Durand Cup champions Gokulam Kerala are being touted as a strong contender.

Minerva Punjab, Neroca FC, Churchill Brothers, defending champions Chennai City and Real Kashmir have also assembled decent squads to be in contention.

The pressure will principally be on the ‘Big Two’ Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, who haven’t been able to win in the last season despite assembling formidable squads.

“Too much pressure in Kolkata,” as Punjab FC striker Dipanda Dicka, who struggled to score last year at Bagan, put it.

The fortunes of these two heavyweights, for whom winning is an obligation, would be keenly followed, particularly after getting beaten in the title race by new teams repeatedly.

East Bengal, yet to win the league since it was rebranded, would be keen to break their duck. “We want to win. It will be the best gift to the supporters in the clubs’ centenary year,” EB veteran Lalrindika Ralte said.

Mohun Bagan will travel to Aizawl for the tournament opener. The kick-off times have been kept at 2pm, 5pm and 7pm.

The 13th edition has a prize purse of Rs 2.25 crore, with the winners receiving Rs 1 crore, runners-up (Rs 60 lakh), third placed team (Rs 40 lakh) and fourth positioned side getting Rs 25 lakh.

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Sayan Mukherjee is the Content Head at Sports Lounge. He has over 10 years of experience in sports journalism (print and digital) having worked for some of the leading media organisations in the country including The Statesman, The Asian Age, IANS and Sports Illustrated.