As I write this, Ten Action is showing clips of Pailan Arrows going through their pre-match routines before squaring up against Mumbai FC.
Yes, the I-League is finally underway. The not-so-smoothly-organized Federation Cup left a bitter taste, for a lot of fans. Telecasting issues and poor overall administration made it a forgettable event. The I-League is, hence, a welcome addition to the weekly routine of the regular Indian football fan. Well at least those who bother to keep a regular check on domestic football.
Kolkata, or Calcutta previously, was once synonymous with football in this country. They had the stadium. They had the fans. And they had the powerhouses in the domestic league. Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Mohammedan Sporting and Tollygunge Agragami all finished in the top half of the table. The westerners in Salgaocar, Goa and Churchill Brothers were constant threats, but the Kolkata clubs came out on top pretty much every time. The situation hasn’t been the same over the last few seasons, though. Clubs from Mumbai and Goa have cast a firm hold on the national football scene. Over the last five years, Dempo have won the league thrice while Churchill Brothers and Salgaocar won the remaining two. As a result, players from these clubs make up most of the current national team.
Well then, what does the 16th National League hold in store? For starters, there is the added incentive of popular TV channels telecasting some of the matches. While the coverage won’t match that of any European league, it’ll certainly add a little value to the otherwise desolate I-League. From the team perspective, Dempo are the favourites, as has been the case for the last few seasons. East Bengal will look to take inspiration from their Federation Cup victory and go one better than their runners-up display last season. Salgaocar, Churchill Brothers and Mohun Bagan are expected to make up the remainder of the top five. Lajong FC and Mumbai FC will, in all probability, be the mid-table clubs who give table toppers a run for their money. As far as competitiveness is concerned, the I-League can conjure up quite a show. The quality, however, leaves a lot to be desired. That’s expected to change too.
Especially since national coach Wim Koevermans has set foot on Indian soil, there has been a change in approach, albeit very slight. Clubs and players will leave no stone unturned to impress the former Dutch centre-back. That being said, we all know how tough it is to catch the imagination of someone who has worked with Johann Cruyff and Ruud Gullit among other luminaries. Can the league step up to the standards expected by Koevermans? Your guess is as good as ours.