Home >mint-lounge >business-of-life >I-League | Season of uncertainty

The 18th edition of the I-League (earlier the National Football League or NFL) kicks off on 21 September under a canopy of gloom. The faltering national economy and the collapse of the chit fund companies in West Bengal have dented the budgets and ambitions of most teams, especially those from Bengal. To make matters worse, the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF’s) developmental team Pailan Arrows have been scrapped and newly admitted corporate team Mumbai Tigers have pulled out. The national team’s underwhelming run under Dutch coach Wim Koevermans has not helped.

To add to the uncertainty, the proposed IMG (International Management Group)-Reliance-promoted franchise-based league scheduled for mid-season threatens to derail the I-League to the consternation of its stakeholder clubs who have refused to loan out their players for this or entertain players aligned with this league on loan.

The winds of change nevertheless have ushered in new dispensations at several clubs. This includes four new foreign managers and around 20 fresh foreign recruits, giving the championship a tinge of both unpredictability and promise. Who will become the future champion team of Indian football will become apparent as the season progresses.

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Mohun Bagan coach Karim Bencherifa. Photo: Hindustan Times

Since all the big teams are beginning anew, it will be difficult to pick a clear favourite among the traditional title contenders. That said, East Bengal, who have fortified their firing line for the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Cup (14 May- 2 November) knock-out stages by roping in James Moga from Pune Football Club, enjoy a distinct edge (their AFC quarter-final match is on 24 September). The key is whether the midfield, where Ryuji Sueoka has been recruited, will be effective enough after the departure of Penn Orji to Mohammedan Sporting, promoted this year from the lower division. Mohun Bagan have been again forced on to the back foot as they will miss their talismanic spearhead Odafa Okolie in the initial stages after he picked up a freak training injury. Sporting look adequate in the foreign talent department but modest in terms of Indian talent. United Sports Club, last year’s biggest spenders, will bash on regardless of the absence of a sponsor, which could put the team under strain in the near future if the situation is not rectified.

Defending champion Churchill Brothers, currently topping the Goa pro-league after eight rounds, have strengthened themselves with a Portuguese defender and midfielder (in lieu of Beto) but will have to contend with the additional burden of the AFC Cup campaign.

Technical director Sukhwinder Singh, who returns to the scene after over a year’s hiatus, is sanguine about their prospects. “There is no additional pressure on being defending champion. Some players have left and some replacements have come in so the team will take time to settle down. But we will play our natural game and as of now things are going well," says Singh, who won the inaugural (NFL) title with JCT Mills in 1996-97.

Five-time champions Dempo appear formidable enough on paper but seem beset by teething problems as they enter a new phase without Armando Colaco. Former title holders Salgaocar too are well-equipped and under former alumni and coach of the year Derrick Pereira, who almost propelled mid-sized Pune Football Club to the title last year, should set their targets high. The well-organized Deccan club under Dutch coach Mike Snoei promise another dazzling encore.

Ashley Westwood, manager of newly admitted corporate team Bengaluru Football Club, admits he has not set any targets for their debut season: “We are a new club and we are going to take this one game at a time. We’re obviously going to strive to get better and fitter with every game. We don’t have the pressure of relegation which is going to let the team express itself more openly. We believe that if we put in the effort on the pitch, the table will take care of itself."

Dark horses Sporting Clube de Goa have sprouted wings under Bruzon, and if their two new Spanish recruits are any good, they will again give the heavyweights a run for their money. Shillong will have two representatives in the championship with Rangdajied United Football Club having made the cut where Santosh Kashyap, who has distinguished himself with minnows like Air India and ONGC, gets another chance to prove himself. Mumbai Football Club have put their faith in three Afghani recruits to keep themselves afloat in the premier division.

All said and done, an intriguing season lies ahead as Indian football trudges ahead into an uncertain future.

*******

TEAM — COACH

Churchill Brothers — Sukhwinder Singh (technical director)

Salgaocar — Derrick Pereira

Dempo — Arthur Papas (Australia)

East Bengal — Marcos Falopa (Brazil)

Mohammedan Sporting — Moshood Bola Abdul
Aziz (Nigeria)

Pune Football Club — Mike Snoei (the Netherlands)

Bengaluru Football Club — Ashley Westwood (England)

Rangdajied United Football Club — Santosh Kashyap

Shillong Lajong — Thangboi Singto

Mumbai Football Club — Khalid Jamil

Sporting Clube de Goa — Oscar Bruzon (Spain)

Mohun Bagan — Karim Bencherifa (Morocco)

United Sports Club — Eelco Schattorie (the Netherlands)

Mario Rodrigues is a senior sports journalist based in Mumbai.

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