The 11th edition of the Hero I-League kicked off in Ludhiana on 25 November. At the launch event in New Delhi earlier that week, the one question that was on the mind of every journalist and football fan was whether this edition would be the swansong of India’s national football league.

Their fears are justified. The focus seems to be on the Indian Super League (ISL), a privately owned richer cousin that debuted in 2014. And with the ISL gaining momentum over the past couple of years, people have questioned whether it’s at the cost of the I-League. There has been talk of a structural overhaul of Indian football.

To set such questions to rest, Kushal Das, the general secretary of the All India Football Federation (Aiff), used the launch event to reiterate what he had told Lounge in March: “The idea is to restructure Indian football in the most sensible way so the national team does well. At the end of the day, we are not talking about the ISL or the I-League."

The eventual goal, he had told Lounge, was to have three or more tiers of 10 teams each. Nobody knows when this will happen and discussions with stakeholders are said to be in progress.

But despite the uncertainty and the harsh realities off the football pitch, one thing is clear: The I-League’s current edition should be both competitive and entertaining with the influx of new players, even if they use it just as a platform to get into the ISL.

Here’s the summary of this edition, which ends on 6 March, in five snapshots:

The teams

There are 10 teams from nine states, including three new teams: Kerala is back with a new franchise, Gokulam Kerala FC, Neroca FC from Manipur have been promoted from the second division, and Delhi have got a team in Indian Arrows, a mix of India U-17 and U-19 players coached by Portugal’s Luís Norton De Matos, who was head coach of India in the U-17 World Cup held in India in October. Bangalore FC, who have joined the ISL, are missing. With their departure, the I-League has lost a challenger to the title as well as a lot of fan following. Chennai City FC have moved base to Coimbatore, possibly to avoid a clash with Chennaiyin FC, the ISL franchise from the state.

Player attrition rate has been high, especially so for defending champions Aizawl FC, who have lost more than 80% of the winning squad. Four of their key players—Lalramchullova, Laldanmawia Ralte, Brandon Vanlalremdika and Mahmoud Al Amna—and coach Khalid Jamil have gone to East Bengal. More than the title defence then, new Portuguese coach Paulo Jorge Coelho Menezes will be focusing on resurrecting the team.

“It (title defence) will be difficult and we are not the favourites," says Menezes. “But we have good local players, including seven boys from our academy. There is no pressure. We want to go out there and play attractive football."

Almost every team has lost key players to the ISL. “Players come and players go. It is a challenge for coaches but the churn is good, it ensures a steady supply of talent," says Mohun Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen. Brave faces apart, it means that every coach has his work cut out.

The North-East story

There are three teams from this region, the highest ever in the league, as second-division champions Neroca from Manipur join Aizawl and Shillong Lajong. Coach Gift Raikhan of Neroca says the objectives in the I-League are different from those in the second division. “We want to take one match at a time and do our best," he says. “Of course, we want to win the league but winning is not everything."

“The teams from Aizawl and Shillong have inspired us. It would be great to participate in the North-Eastern derbies and I am sure there will be massive fan support," says Raikhan.

Coach Bobby Nongbet of Shillong Lajong agrees that the North-Eastern derbies will be fast and intense.

The North-East has become a fertile ground for young footballers; more than 60 Mizo players participated in the league’s last edition. With one more team coming in from the region, there should be more exciting football on display.

Overseas players

Starting this edition, I-League clubs can field up to five foreign players in the playing XI, compared with four so far. The two Kolkata clubs—East Bengal and Mohun Bagan—led the push for more overseas players and all the coaches say they will be looking to play the maximum number of foreign players in most games. This would, however, be at the cost of young Indian players.

“Many other teams can play more young players but we can’t afford to do that," says Sen of Mohun Bagan. “Young players will buckle under the kind of pressure that we have to handle. There is a lot at stake, expectations from supporters, club legacy, etc."

The concern stems from the Kolkata teams’ battle for supremacy in the city against ISL champions ATK.

Many other teams can play more young players but we can’t afford to do that. Young players will buckle under the kind of pressure that we have to handle. - Sanjoy Sen

I-League vs ISL

This is the first time that the I-League and the ISL are being held concurrently. This means that players can’t participate in both and explains why many key players have chosen to play in the cash-rich ISL.

Both leagues have the same promoters and title sponsors. They are also being telecast live over the same channels, which is a notch up for the I-League. The catch, however, is that while the ISL games have a late-evening start, many I-League matches have a 2pm kick-off, including the Kolkata derby last Sunday. In fact, when the I-League’s schedule was announced on 14 November, former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia tweeted: “What a shame. I league deserves much better. Both league should survive and do well but not by killing each other."

In all his interactions with the media, Das, probably unintentionally, ended up mentioning the ISL before the I-League every time. This does seem to indicate a pattern for the future.

Focus on youth

Given the high attrition rate, the focus is on the new young players in every team. Also in focus is Indian Arrows, the development side being fielded by Aiff that comprises players from the Fifa U-17 World Cup and the Under-19 team. The federation says the idea is to keep the boys together to make the cut for the U-20 World Cup in 2019.

While the move seems good on paper and will give the boys a chance to test their mettle against the men, it could also be counter-intuitive, for it shrinks the selection pool for the U-20 and deprives players outside this group of the opportunity.

Coach De Matos agrees that wins could be difficult for the team but says that “competing with the big boys here will give the boys the much-needed experience".

All this apart, this edition of I-League is being viewed through a nostalgic lens. Malsawmtluanga Shylo, 33, a key player for East Bengal for over a decade, will start for Aizawl this season. Shylo was the first Mizo footballer to play professionally when he joined the Kolkata club in 2002. “It was a dream to play for a club from my home state. This year, I am finally coming home," he says. Another player who has come home is Sushanth Mathew of Gokulam Kerala FC.

“I started in Kerala, then I moved to Goa, Mumbai, Kolkata and the North-East. I played in the ISL too. A lot of people kept asking me why there was no team from Kerala in the I-League. Now there is and I’m really happy because this is a fantastic thing for football in Kerala," says Mathew, who has represented the Kerala Blasters and Pune City FC in the ISL.

The I-League may not give us the next Bhutia or Gurpreet Singh Sandhu this season but it would be foolhardy to write it off just yet.

Nitin Sreedhar contributed to this story.

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