The fiasco over the appointment of the national football coach (Armando Colaco’s interim contract was terminated, Karim Bencherifa was appointed and then Salgaocar SC refused to release him) proves that the more things change in Indian football, the more they remain the same, vis-à-vis the lack of administrative acumen.

Churchill Brothers (in red) tussle with rookies Prayag United. By Vijay Verma/PTI

As in most football leagues the world over, a class divide separates the field between these usual suspects, a handful of big-budget clubs, which mainly contest the title race, and their less privileged counterparts whose main aim is to avoid relegation. Only on rare occasions does a miracle take place—to use an international example, when VfL Wolfsburg came from out of the blue to win the German Bundesliga in 2008-09.

The I-League (National Football League in its earlier avatar) has been no different and just a few big-budget clubs have actually pocketed the title—Dempo (four times), Mohun Bagan and East Bengal (thrice each), Salgaocar (twice), and Churchill Brothers, Mahindra United and JCT once each, the last two having since folded up.

Re-promoted Sporting Clube de Goa could well have triumphed in 2004-05 had not an unfortunate road accident incapacitated some of their key players on the home stretch. Middling outfits like the “Flaming Orange" (Sporting Clube de Goa), Prayag United (earlier Chirag United) and Pune FC have been occasionally punching above their weight. They could well take advantage of the flux to go all the way this time around.

East Bengal (in red and gold) play Mohameddan Sporting. By Vijay Verma/PTI

Salgaocar’s form was patchy in the Federation Cup in September, but that was the case with most teams who are rebuilding and trying to tackle the start-of-the-season blues. “You can’t judge the prospects of teams in the I-League by the Fed Cup," says Sukhwinder Singh, former India and JCT coach and currently mentor to Pailan Arrows. “It’s early days and teams with new coaches and new line-ups have still to settle down," he adds.

Denied a hat-trick of Federation Cup wins and the I-League title last season by late setbacks, East Bengal have inducted Scottish striker Alan Gow to partner Aussie shooter Tolgay Ozbey and bolstered the defence by roping in promising under-23 India skipper Raju Gaikwad.

For all their class and resources, Dempo were a disappointment last season and the I-League’s most celebrated coach, Colaco, with four titles under his belt, will have to rebuild anew. The departure of Brazilian attacking midfielder Beto to Churchill Brothers will leave a gaping hole in the middle though the addition of Nigerian recruit Koko Sakibo will bolster their strike force in tandem with Ranty Martins (top scorer last edition), Viva Kerala’s Anil Kumar and homeboy Joaquim Abranches.

Defending champions Salgaocar SC. By Hindustan Times

Kolkata clubs have failed to pocket the title since East Bengal last clinched it in 2003-04, making it a western India show thereafter (six titles won by Goan teams and one by Mumbai). Churchill Brothers’ Portuguese coach Manuel Gomes too will feel the heat if he cannot get off to a flier after the Fed Cup flop. On paper, the Varca-based club have a great line-up with lanky new central defender Antun Kovacic (Australia) keeping Gourmangi Singh company at the back, Beto providing the creative impetus in midfield and Henri Antchouet (Gabon), N.D. Opara (Nigeria), Mohammed Rafi and HAL’s Xavier Vijaykumar the strike force.

Salgaocar’s would-have-been India coach Bencherifa is not taking anything for granted: “There is not much of a difference between the I-League teams, any club can beat the other one on a given day. Just look at the Fed Cup where second division teams beat I-League sides. It will be also down to the depth in squads as it’s a long season."

Asked about Salgaocar’s prospects, the Moroccan says, “We have our chances also, we did strengthen our squad and we started well by winning the Fed Cup. But the I-League is a long battle, which needs consistency to do well."

For the likes of embattled Air-India, Mumbai FC and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd SC, it will be a battle for survival. The fact that Chirag United Kerala replaced coach K.P. Kunhikrishnan with Pakir Ali after a dismal Fed Cup campaign proves that they have yet to get their act together. The speculation about the team being shifted to Kolkata next season will also act as a dampener.

No such relegation worries will plague Pailan Arrows, the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) youth team which will continue playing in the premier division to give India prospects playing experience—they otherwise would be warming the bench in the big clubs where the key positions are filled in by foreigners. More so in the strike department —foreign strikers have regularly topped the scoring charts and will once again determine the title race.

Sukhwinder Singh sees the non-relegation issue as a positive. “Last year, they (Pailan Arrows) saved relegation comfortably; we are not here just to make up the numbers, we will put our best foot forward," he says.

With the domestic football scene being enlivened by some high-profile international visits, hopefully, some of the gloss will rub off on the I-League, making the 16th edition of India’s premier football tournament an affair to remember.

Matches will be telecast live on Ten Action+ from 22 October.

Mario Rodrigues is a senior sports journalist based in Mumbai.

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