Its latest season has shown that the I-League, India's national football league, must serve as a symbol of the grass-roots movement which has been gathering pace across the country
Often maligned in the past for its intolerant view of young Indian players, the I-League, India’s national football league, turned over a new leaf this year and showcased the nation’s future generation. In doing so, the league provided a glimpse of how it could serve a larger purpose even in a rejigged ecosystem where it is increasingly losing relevance in favour of the richer Indian Super League (ISL), which, since the debut edition in 2014, has swiftly ended the supremacy of its poorer cousin. I-League’s latest season, which ended in April, provided a good template to build upon and follow in the future; three matches between the Shillong Lajong, DSK Shivajians and Minerva Punjab clubs featured as many as 15 under-22 (U-22) players.
Two months on, though, the league could move in a disheartening direction. Earlier this week, the All India Football Federation (Aiff) league committee discussed the matter of increasing the league’s quota of foreign players for parity with the ISL but deferred the final decision to a later date.
In the next season that starts in November, I-League clubs could be allowed to field up to five foreign players in the playing XI, and also register up to eight in the squad. Till now, teams could only register or play four overseas players in accordance with continental norms.
The two Kolkata clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, have led this push for more foreigners, with younger clubs like league champions Aizawl, Minerva Punjab, Chennai City, Shillong Lajong and Neroca opposing the proposal.
The Kolkata teams’ push for parity with ISL stems from their battle for supremacy within the city against two-time ISL champions Atlético de Kolkata (ATK). “We have to compete with the ISL", Kolkata club officials told the representatives of six other clubs at a meeting in New Delhi in the last week of June. “It isn’t mandatory for you (the other clubs) to play the extra foreigner."
From the next season, moreover, the two leagues—I-League and ISL—will, for the first time, be played concurrently and for the same duration, so there is little chance of anyone playing in both leagues. With more money and exposure at stake, the ISL will be the more attractive bet for bigger players. So the older Kolkata clubs will be left with no option but to rely on more foreigners in the hope of bridging the gap. Essentially then, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan are protecting their own interests here, but should it be at the cost of nurturing young Indian talent?
“It’ll be a silly move," says Ranjit Bajaj, owner and team manager of Minerva. “I will be forced to play five foreign players if the opposition is doing so. We have to compete." An increase in the number of foreigners would mean fewer Indians in a team, and even fewer younger players in the league. There’s a massive opportunity cost too, as Bajaj explains. “I’d rather invest in my youth academy than spend the same amount on a good foreigner for the senior team. I can’t budget for both. Most clubs will face this problem."
Minerva used 17 U-22 players this season, the highest in the I-League, averaging over four U-22 players per starting XI and nearly six per game. Six of the seven players taken on loan by the club were U-22s as well, including the 17-year-old winger Baoringdao Bodo, who became the I-League’s youngest-ever scorer, although he’s yet to make an appearance for the ISL’s Chennaiyin FC, his parent club.
Higher stakes, big managerial reputations and a stronger foreign base don’t allow ISL clubs to gamble on younger players. Only two of the ISL’s “most promising Indian youngsters" in 2016, for instance, were below the age of 22 and all except one were I-League regulars.
I-League clubs too hadn’t always welcomed youth, forcing Aiff to intervene and put measures in place to protect the interests of younger players. This past season, although the triad of Lajong, Minerva and DSK Shivajians alone accounted for 46 out of a remarkable 70 U-22 players on show, the division had, overall, seen a positive shift in attitude.
Lajong played 19 Indian players, 16 of whom were U-22. It had an average of nearly eight U-22s per starting XI and over nine per match. And two of its best players, captain Nim Dorjee Tamang, 21, and chief playmaker Isaac Vanmalsawma, 20, are from the Shillong Lajong Football Club Academy.
DSK Shivajians also dropped their squad of seasoned players, which finished bottom of the league on debut in 2016, and replaced them with graduates from their own academy, which the club runs in association with Liverpool FC.
“We made promoting youngsters our top priority this year," says DSK chief executive officer Neel Shah. “Academy players who were ready for the senior team got their chances." DSK fielded 13 U-22s this season, including mainstays like Jerry Mawihmingthanga, 20, and Lallianzuala Chhangte, 19, who played only 20-odd minutes on loan at ISL’s NorthEast United last year
Other clubs followed suit. Chennai City, on a mission, says CEO Rohit Ramesh, “to give local players a future home", had three Tamil Nadu-born players among the club’s five most frequent Indian starters. Aizawl fielded 14 Mizoram-born players in a fairy-tale league triumph; Mumbai fielded all-Indian playing XIs early in the season; and even the two Kolkata clubs honoured the U-22 rule, which mandates the inclusion of at least one U-22 player in a starting XI, allowing for stories like young Azharuddin Mallick’s derby-day heroics to unfold.
Now all that could change. Only a lack of consensus among Indian football’s biggest stakeholders prevented the I-League from being officially rechristened the new second tier from next season. On the brink of extinction, though, flush with a growing breed of football entrepreneurs willing to invest in a bottom-up approach, the I-League delivered its most memorable season yet. And it must learn from that.
In its quest for relevance, it has an obvious area of focus: Its latest edition has shown that it must serve as a symbol of the grass-roots movement which has been gathering pace across the country, rather than striving to become an entity to challenge the ISL head on.
If the ISL is set on popularizing football at the top, the I-League, whichever avatar it may find itself in in the near future, has a vital role in galvanizing it at the bottom.
The statistics have been compiled by the writer.
The top five players to watch out for in Indian football
Udanta Singh, 21
A terror in the wings for Bengaluru FC and, since 2016, the Indian national team too.
Chesterpoul Lyngdoh, 19
When playing for Churchill Brothers, he was a troublemaker for opposition defenders on the flanks with his darting runs.
Isaac Vanmalsawma, 20
Chief playmaker of a young Shillong Lajong side, who also earned his first India call-up this year.
Jerry Lalrinzuala, 18
Shot into the limelight in the ISL last year; the left-back featured in all games for DSK Shivajians.
Baoringdao Bodo, 17
A bold winger who defies his age, he was among Minerva Punjab’s best players this year.