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The Return of the I-League The Competition Indian Football Thrives On

The 13th season of the I-League is set to roll from November 30 after riding a storm that threatened the existence of the competition and the clubs in it. The league, which taps into the grassroots, promises great stories, and plenty of scrappy football, from clubs across India. This piece kicks-off Newsclick’s season-long, in-depth coverage of India’s most popular football competition.
I League

The 13th season of the I-League kicks off on November 30th with Aizawl FC taking on Mohun Bagan in the season opener (Image courtesy: AIFF Media)

On March 9, 2019 Chennai City went up against Minerva Punjab FC in the last round of the 2018-19 I-League. A win would be enough to win them a maiden title. A few hundred miles away, Gokulam Kerala were up against an East Bengal team that needed all three points and a Minerva favour to win it themselves. Rewind almost exactly a year, and on March 8, 2018, Minerva Punjab FC took on Churchill brothers at home, in the final round. Mathematically three teams could win the title that day. East Bengal and NEROCA were two points off leading into that game and by the end finished second and third. Roll the tape back further, and we land up in Shillong where Aizawl took on Lajong, a point enough to make them champions. They did, but almost didn’t. But they did. 

For three consecutive years before that Aizawl story, Mohun Bagan discovered a rivalry with a club with none of their history but all of their panache. Bengaluru FC won their first I-League in their first ever season in 2013-14. The next season they were cruising. But they stuttered and Bagan got through, bursting an invincible bubble in Bengaluru -- their captain Bello Razaq heading in an 87th minute equaliser to clinch the title. 

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So it goes. Lalrindika Ralte, the man who has played everywhere without ever really leaving East Bengal -- the only team to have played all thirteen seasons but never lifted that cylinder looking trophy -- summed it up. “Every team is tough in the I-League,” he said, “It is very difficult to win.”

But you know, I-league: boring, uncompetitive, unmarketable and all that.

The problem was never the league -- although afternoon kickoffs, lazy programming and empty stadiums are never a good look -- as much as it was just this unshakeable somewhat false notion that India deserved better. It deserved more glamour. And the I-League therefore has been demoted, without actually looking like there is any change. 

If anything, their 2019-20 season launch conference on November 21 was bigger and better than anything that had been done before, forcing a journalist to remark that this was ‘appeasement after legalising a crime’. He was referencing Babri and maybe that goes too far. After all, the I-League will now have its own television slot, its own programming, its own place, its own channel distanced from big brother’s dirty gaze. It will be made to feel welcome. But it won’t get that coveted spot it so cherishes. Oh wait.

“Football has given me the chance to see so many different places,” Dharmaraj Ravanan said, “I have played almost everywhere there is a team, Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai… and I have even gone to places where they don’t have teams.” He has also played in Kashmir and will this season play in Kerala, for a team considered favourites before a ball is kicked.

Gokulam after all have already won a trophy. They went to Kolkata and beat both the Kolkata giants to win the Durand Cup. Early last month they went to Bangladesh for the Sheikh Kamal Cup and lost to the eventual runners up in a shootout. Maybe its time for the trophy to go to Kerala. Stay in the south but shift boundaries. Everything is safe there. For Ravanan, the shifting clubs is a constant, and each experience is an illustration of what this league has and gives to Indian football.

“It was crazy playing in Kashmir last season, a completely different experience. The support was superb. There were 15,000 people attending the games at the home stadium. It was a great atmosphere,” Ravanan said.

It was. Will there be again? Real Kashmir will play the I-League. But will they play in Kashmir? The league’s CEO Sunando Dhar is adamant they will, no matter what the doubters say. “We have assurances from the government and the club that games will be held in Srinagar,” he said.

If that is true then there is reason to believe Real Kashmir are also contenders. In no disguised words, Mason Robertson the defender-attacker, said that not being able to play their final home games in Srinagar last season cost them the title. Real Kashmir were in the race right up until their game against East Bengal  rescheduled to Delhi. 

A lot has happened since. Not just with the state of Kashmir but the state of Real Kashmir itself. A lot has changed, but also remained the same. From being a feel good Indian football story, they are now a feel good international football story, a documentary on them -- and mostly on their coach the brilliant Scot David Robertson -- won at the BAFTAs last month.

With all this attention though comes increased scrutiny. How do the players deal with this pressure? “Pressure ki baat nahi hai,” says Khalid Qayoom, “focus ki baat hai. And as players we are focussed on our objectives as a team and on our football.”

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Real Kashmir and the players’ focus is perhaps underrated in a league, a sport and a profession where it is as easy to get distracted as it is to be a monk. At the time of the abrogation of Section 370 in Kashmir, the team were in Kalyani, training and preparing for their Durand CUp opener. From being ‘just another team’, overnight they became ‘the team with the story’. Kalyani is a hundred kilometers from Kolkata, and yet without fail everyday the press corps that landed up managed to dig up a story about the team, its players, their ‘focus’, their fears and the lack of communication from back home.

On the pitch they played like footballers do. They reached the semi finals before losing to Mohun Bagan. And now, three months later, with much change but almost none. They will be in Kolkata to start again -- against East Bengal this time for their I-League opener. Win that and suddenly they will be contenders. Because everyone is.

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Over the past three seasons, the difference between the top two at the end of the season has been a maximum of 3 points. That was Minerva in 2017-18. On either side of that year, it has been 1,1. That is binary code for C.O.M.P.E.T.I.T.I.V.E.  

Competitive is one word, but is there more than that? Is this league too easy to win, or just that much more even? No one has too much money, no one has too little. And this season it will be even more so. Forced prudence. Everyone gets a chance.

Realism suggests that isn’t true, and at the end some of the same teams will be there. East Bengal for one. Their 100th year, and after the Durand mishap, the Calcutta League debacle, the Quess drama, the demotion of the league, maybe this really is their year to win the title. 

“No one can say,” Ralte said, “All the teams are tough. And all the teams are tougher when they come to play East Bengal. Everyone plays harder.” They should anyway. This league doesn’t work on reputation. 

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