I-League: A tournament forced into severe identity crisisNovember 22, 2017
NEW DELHI: When Shylo Malsawmtluanga shyly stepped in from backstage carrying the I-League trophy that his team, Aizawl FC won in Cinderella-like fashion last season, for that one moment you were assailed by a strange sense of calm regarding the league’s future.
The Mizo footballer, with that quiet, easy grace he brings with him, is known to have that effect on proceedings but the feeling wasn’t to last very long.
Soon after, the trophy was carted around by the handlers and had made room on the dais for other presentations. It summed up the I-League and the chances being afforded to it in these times of the ISL. Today, the I-League is a tournament forced into severe identity crisis.
Still, it was a commendable effort. Launching a new season, starting with Mohun Bagan’s visit to Minerva on Saturday, Nov 25, by inviting the coaches and captain of all 10 teams and involving them in a short tete-a-tete (the taciturn Khalid Jamil gave even more brief replies than usual), was a novel never-before in the I-League.
Earlier, in much less-threatened times, you just required the President or Prime Minister to awkwardly tap the ball in a ceremonial kick-off and the football, in all its roller-coaster ways, would do the rest. Now it is forced to react to anything the ISL dictates, from the manufactured frills of the sidelines to playing five foreigners in the XI.
Despite the infusion of youth and promise with the inclusion of the India Arrows comprising India’s Under-17 and 19 teams, and addition of two other teams, the feeling that I-League has been cut away just doesn’t leave. It was an aspect vividly evident in the words of the All India Football Federation general secretary, Kushal Das, who insisted that this continued to be India’s national league, but remembered not to omit the crucial rider, “as of now…” when giving it its place in Indian football.
The concept of a dual league automatically gives India’s national league second-class status. Microphone in hand, players, coaches and old-timers said all the right things – shreds of optimism coming from all those hanging on to different kinds of hope, of consolidation, a learning, a title, but mostly, of survival.
“Even in a parallel structure, we all know where this league stands when compared to the ISL. Even without naming it as such, it is already the second division with the better players gone there and their matches played at 8 PM and our matches played at 2,” said a veteran player.
“Effectively, now there are three divisions already in Indian football,” he said alluding, to the I-League Division-II already in practice. “But we have to play, or else where do we go?” he added.
In forecasting the season, Sanjoy Sen, a thoughtful man and Mohun Bagan’s coach, revealed a larger picture. “This I-League is a completely new tournament compared to the one played last season… Not every team here will play for the title. Some of them will fight to remain in the middle of the league table,” he said.
He may have been talking just football, but the picture being painted was one of survival.
Could the I-League have survived the commercial onslaught of the ISL? Left on its own, no, but the situation could have been averted had the federation needed what was required of it, rather than facilitate the sport’s disinvestment. As the new season is announced, it is heartening, as always, that there’s football to be played and a trade to be plied. But for how much longer, one cannot say. Was this the last-ever I-League that was being launched with such fanfare? One hoped not, but there isn’t much cause for optimism either.