It was a semi-warm afternoon of October in Delhi. Winters were slowly creeping in, but the days continued to be thirsty. We were invited to the official launch of the I-league 2018-19, many claiming it to be the last before the Asian Football Confederation finally dawns curtains on the league that took over from the National Football League in 2007. The Indian Super League’s star was shining bright, brighter than everything else happening in Indian football.
We went. We had to. I-league is still an emotion for the football faithful of India, with due respect to the smoothly-extravagant Indian Super League. Some announcements were made, and 11 teams were introduced. Lalrindika Ralte flagbeared East Bengal while long-time goalkeeper Shilton Paul praised his club Mohun Bagan. An idea struck my mind. It still persists.
Before we get into the story, let’s discuss why the Premier League is the most followed league in the world for a bit. Michael Cox writes for ESPN and points out that ‘It (the Premier League) has unquestionably benefited from occasionally ludicrous levels of hype and the manner in which matches are presented — the camera angles close to the pitch, the crowd microphones providing a proper atmosphere, the stands generally near capacity — has given it an advantage over rival European leagues.’
Globally, several writers have also claimed that the close proximity between the top six on the league table is a property no other league provides. Also, the cathartic experience of upsets is more prevalent in the Premier League, when compared to the La Liga or the Bundesliga, leagues that come close to the PL in terms of following trends.
Closer home, and this is not a comparison by any means, have we not seen an almost different winner every season for the last 10-odd years in a league that is close to become defunct in near future? The I-league, this season as well, presents us with a mixed bag of contenders. While NEROCA continues to be in the ring, Chennai City FC, a team that probably had a domino effect with the departure of its mini-talisman Michael Soosairaj, are looking favourites to take the trophy home.
What also works for the league is the abysmally inconsistent trend of its league table. Clubs from India’s football capital are reeling in the bottom half of the table, and look distant from lifting the trophy without some miraculous leap from them and some heartbreaking paralysis from the ones that are dominating at the moment. Retrospectively, Mohun Bagan has managed to lift the trophy just once, while East Bengal hasn’t.
Why then, has this league not got its due? It has its charm, ask any Mumbai FC fan. They had to transfer their allegiance to the Mumbai City FC, and some took a step down to the Mumbai Division football. There is an oldish, Goa-Kolkata charm this league still exudes. Its stories got global recognition, with movies under the radar and books already published on them. Aizawl FC’s 2016-17 dream run, for example.
But let’s go back to what Michael Cox wisely put in his ESPN piece. ‘Occasionally ludicrous levels of hype’ has usually been negatively-publicised events for the league. Improper signing methodologies, controversial travel arrangements, questionable turndowns to play the league and remarks made at official meetings hasn’t helped its marketing team.
It continues – ‘the manner in which matches are presented — the camera angles close to the pitch, the crowd microphones providing a proper atmosphere, the stands generally near capacity’ aren’t something that has been implemented in the league. The display quality, a basic output that reaches a viewer, is comparatively lower than a league that started five years ago. This has worked in its disfavour? A lot of heads say yes in an unofficial conversation I had at the lunch table after the I-league launch event.
What, then, can be done to revive the league that still entertains, if only you follow it? Better arrangements for its fans, a full-stop to the step-motherly treatment meted out on it by the All India Football Federation, and better money influx from the markets – certainly another key point. Its ubiquitous worldwide, and should see the light of the day here in India as well, but ask a six-year-old in a North Indian town, and he’d name cricket as his favourite sport. This needs to change.
Taking everything into consideration, the quality of football and the amazing goals that Rana Gharami, Jayesh Rane and Raynier Fernandes have scored in the ISL find their way back home to the I-league, a league that stands questioned in a corner. The competition on the pitch, though, remains unquestioned, and if you do follow it, there’s no better catharsis than this.