NEW DELHI: Its future uncertain due to the impending restructuring of the country’s football structure, the I-League kicks off Friday with a lot of promise following a fantastic previous season and a fair amount of buzz due to Real Kashmir’s debut in the top division.
The All India Football Federation’s development side Indian Arrows and Chennai City FC face each other in the opening match at the Nehru Stadium in Coimbatore on Friday.
Eleven clubs from 10 states will vie for top honours in the league which will continue for over six months.
Srinagar-based Real Kashmir FC are making their debut in the I-League after winning the second division league earlier this year.
There is quite a buzz in the Kashmir Valley in anticipation of the first I-League coming to Srinagar and also after the two-year-old club scooped a major sponsorship deal with global sportswear major Adidas.
Since the launch of the cash-rich franchise-based Indian Super League in 2013, the I-League has been the poor cousin of the ISL, though the All Indian Football Federation would still describe it as the top league in the country.
In terms of the spectators turning out during matches or the playing conditions and pitch, the I-League seemed to be inferior to the ISL though majority of its matches were also telecast live.
But surprisingly, the competitiveness among the teams and even the quality of football, according to experts, were almost similar in both the leagues last season.
In the previous season, the I-League went down the wire with four clubs- Minerva Punjab, Neroca, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in title contention going into the final match day. Minerva Punjab eventually lifted their maiden title with three points ahead of Neroca, who in turn, secured just one point more than third and fourth placers Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
Churchill Brothers, who finished ninth out of 10 teams last season, were to be relegated as AIFF’s developmental side Indian
Arrows were immune to this rule, but the Goan side got a breather and were retained this season.
“Now that the restructuring is going to happen, we thought there was no harm in retaining Churchill Brothers (for this upcoming season) as relegating them would see no representation from the whole of West India,” AIFF senior vice-president Subrata Dutta said at the I-League launch ceremony.
The AIFF has for some time been seized with this issue of restructuring of domestics football structure and from the hints dropped by the brass of the national federation, including its president Praful Patel, a final decision is on the cards.
Current I-League sides and easily the two clubs with the most popular fan-base Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are set to join the ISL bandwagon next season.
With the departure of the two biggest clubs in the country, the stature of the I-League will fall a notch down though the AIFF officials sought to play down this kind of eventuality.
The name I-League itself may be change and is most likely to relegated to the second tier status.
For the current season, however, it is hard to pick the favourites to dominate the league though as usual the Big Two of Kolkata have the star power of individual brilliance.