The rather awkward anomaly has repeated itself time and again over the years.
For many years, the I-League and its fierce competitiveness has ranked it among the most unpredictable leagues – not only in India, but in the whole of Asian football. A reason for it being considered as the “People’s League” is because a dominant monopoly hasn’t been allowed to set in.
Of course, while there’s a sense of poignancy in a new champion – often a stark underdog- being crowned every year, that’s also because teams have struggled to maintain their grip over the crown. It’s been well over a decade since the I-League featured a side to win the competition in consecutive years.
Dempo SC, now a forgotten afterthought in top-level football, won back-to-back league titles in the 2006-07 & 2007-08 season. Since then, there has been a new champion every campaign. Going by Chennai City FC’s downfall this season, that feat isn’t going to be repeated anytime soon.
One can call it complacency, laziness or even entitlement for defending champions not being able to maintain their elite mentality beyond the first accomplishment. But in reality, these teams often get stripped off their jewels even before they can prepare to plot the next stage of their dominance.
Let’s take Chennai City’s plight in point. Even after a shaky start to their campaign, they’ve now sold off their star striker Pedro Manzi for a high fee relative to Indian football. The Spaniard was responsible for winning them more than half the matches in the I-League last season by netting 21 goals. But, he wasn’t the only hero snatched away from the southerners.
After some transfer drama involving creator-in-chief Nestor Gordillo, the influential playmaker eventually has settled in his new home at Hyderabad FC. Even their backbone’s been disfigured with Edwin Vanspaul, Alexander Romario Jesuraj and Gaurav Bora all moving away. When five regulars are swooned away, how can a team maintain their stride?
However, this hasn’t just happened with the current defending champions. Punjab FC and Aizawl FC also fell prey to this phenomenon in the last few seasons as well. While the Warriors saw their players being poached by Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, multiple Aizawl players also saw their stocks rise after the unprecedented title win.
Indeed, Jayesh Rane, Albino Gomes, LaldanmawiaRalte and Lalruatthara are all comfortably tied to Indian Super League sides now. These clubs lose many of their players for nothing. However, in some instances they rake in transfer fees or compensation for providing the players they helped bring into the spotlight.
They prefer investing what they get into either improving their grassroots structure or building on their overall structure. By investing in their youth academy, coaching staff or technical side, the clubs are building towards a brighter future. If investing in youth allows them to create bigger future stars, it’s a win-win all around.
Then again, producing glittering stars ultimately seeks the attention of the cash-rich ISL sides. Ever since the competition gained momentum in Indian football, budding players have all opted for that transition. The spike in professionalism and fame are just some of the reasons.
Moreover, the competition sits as the best shot a budding domestic star has at making the national team. So, it’s no real surprise that many of the I-League title-winning players in recent seasons have opted to join ISL sides afterwards.
However, it’s not just that squad reshuffles are the reason the I-League’s defending champions struggle to impress in their title-defence campaign. There’s also the pressure of representing their country in AFC competitions looming large on their minds.
That being said, none of the recent winners have been able to go beyond the AFC Champions League qualifying stages to enter the main tournament. Neither have they progressed beyond the AFC Cup group stages.
Nevertheless, Chennai City can perhaps mark a change by finding back their rhythm in the second half of the season. They must use that Manzi money to good effect, making a few impactful signings to recreate that winning core. The Southern Derby win over Gokulam Kerala showed that there’s still life in them, but Akbar Nawas’ side need quality signings to bring back the swagger lost by selling their stars.
Yet, with the league being demoted to second-tier status, not many ambitious domestic players would risk sticking long with the clubs. Without the Indian stars as their backbone, not many teams can maintain their grip over the volatile competition for more than one season.