The league has proved to be unpredictable in recent years with four different champions emerging in the last five seasons.
Another magical I-League season concluded on Saturday, when Chennai City FC made history by winning the title against all odds. A brand new fairytale in Indian football only enhanced the unpredictable reputation of the league which has been producing memorable tales time and again over the years.
What started as an unfathomable achievement from Aizawl FC, later being matched by the undying spirit of Minerva Punjab, Chennai City’s season was relatively more comfortable due to their brilliant planning. Coach Akbar Nawas’s ‘one match at a time’ approach helped him shape the squad into an unbreakable unit, allowing them to play scintillating football and giving rise to promising talents.
However, the I-League season wasn’t just about Chennai’s surprising triumphs. A much larger aspect was proven during a campaign where the league was consistently undermined by its sister league, the Indian Super League (ISL). Despite the scarce promotion, restricted and poor broadcasting adding to an uncertain future, the I-League flung it’s wings wide to keep flying high even in volatile skies.
Chennai City FC won their maiden I-League title last Saturday
Yet it seems like the league and its teams may have lost the inevitable losing battle. With I-League CEO Sunando Dhar himself admitting that only one top division will go exist next season, there’s little to no chance that the I-League gets pushed ahead of the glamorous ISL. While the legacy Kolkata clubs and possibly even defending champions Chennai City might be given passes to improve the reach of the cash-rich league, other clubs won’t be that lucky.
There’s a good chance that close to eight teams will be relegated into the second division. With Dhar also confirming a lack of promotion/relegation in the next few years, there’s little chance that any of these gains entry. The inspiring tale of Real Kashmir might soon be forgotten, while former giants Churchill Brothers could see their reputation sink even lower.
Aizawl, who have been the heart of Mizoram football, won’t see their former champions tag help them. Neither will Minerva Punjab, who despite producing some top young talents are being undermined. NEROCA FC, Gokulam Kerala and Indian Arrows’ glowing work will come to little, with the former’s powerful reach being null and void in this scenario.
I-league CEO Sunando Dhar recently said that next season will see only one league as the top flight in the country
While the ISL will definitely gain a boost in popularity by possibly introducing East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, sacrificing the “smaller” clubs isn’t the answer at all. Even on treacherous grounds, these financially average clubs have produced beautiful moments over the years. Chennai City might’ve been so dominant, yet their losses to Real Kashmir and Churchill proved how competitive the I-League is.
Even East Bengal’s shocking three losses in a row to supposedly “inferior” opposition was an eye-opener for those who presumed any “easy games” can be expected. Indian Arrows’ season, which ended with a terrific 3-1 victory over the Mariners at the Salt Lake Stadium, proved they deserve more chances to shine in a competitive league in order to develop as a unit.
In terms of attendance, the I-League gave strong competition to the ISL despite the conflict in kick-off times, especially on working days. The league recorded an average attendance of around 10200, only about 3000 lower than the ISL, which scheduled matches at prime time, where more fans could find it viable to attend matches. Despite scheduling I-League matches in the scorching heat and poor conditions, fans came out in numbers, with East Bengal averaging 27000, 7000 more than the ISL’s leaders Jamshedpur FC.
Even NEROCA and Gokulam Kerala recorded impressive attendances, despite topsy-turvy seasons. Much more than ISL outfits FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC, whose reputation itself drew more fans.
In terms of players, the I-League has also developed the majority of the breakout stars in the ISL this season. Michael Soosairaj, Raynier Fernandes, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Redeem Tlang, Isaac Vanmalsawma and Brandon Fernandes all found their spotlight initially in the I-League. Even next campaign, I-League starts like Jobby Justin, Gaurav Bora, Samuel Lyngdoh, Abhash Thapa and Phrangki Buam will attract attention from ISL clubs.
Nawas recently opined that there should be a unified, 20 team league in India. He reiterated how it would help the development of football and players, as players need to play a full season rather than a league stretching for a few months. In an ideal world, the AIFF would go through with this decision.
Despite hefty protest from the I-league clubs recently, it seems the league has set into the sunset. However, this decision could come back to haunt the AIFF’s plan to qualify for the 2030 World Cup and end up setting Indian football back many years rather than helping it go forward.