The real league season is here: I-League gets finally underway today
AFTER THE FRENZY of the Indian Super League (ISL), the nation is geared up for another football extravaganza which gets nine clubs to compete against each other for the coveted crown of the I-League, the only FIFA-recognized football league in the country, the one whose champions get to represent the country in the Asian club championships.
It seems like only yesterday when Mohun Bagan's Bello Rasaq headed in the equaliser against Bengaluru FC to draw 1-1 and help the Mariners hold aloft the trophy for the first time since the league's rechristening in 2007. Earlier it was called the National Football league.
But eight months have passed since that game and it will be the defending champions who will play the season opener against newcomers Aizawl FC at home on Saturday.
Pune FC, Royal Wahingdoh and Bharat FC have pulled away from the tournament and have been replaced with Aizawl and DSK Shivajians, a Pune-based club.
The team to beat this year will again be Bengaluru as they have hardly put a foot wrong in the two years that they have been in the league. In 2013-14 they won it and in 2015 they missed out narrowly. But this time too they have quite a strong squad at their disposal.
Sunil Chhetri, Robin Singh are perhaps the best Indian strikers at the moment and they will again operate in tandem. They also have been boosted with the inclusion of goalkeeper Amrinder Singh.
Mohun Bagan remain strong contenders too, as they would not like to part with the trophy easily which they earned on the last match-day of the 2014-15 season, after a 13-year drought.
What would motivate the green and maroon brigade was the reception they got back home after winning the tournament. Thousands had come out into the streets to salute their footballing heroes.
If the team gels along with the four recruits, Sanjoy Sen’s team would be a force to reckon with. But then again the likes of Haitian midfielder Sony Norde and new recruit striker Cornell Glen have to be at their very best in order to defend the title.
For Mohun Bagan’s arch rivals East Bengal it is a season where they will hope to snatch away the crown from their eternal rivals. They won the Calcutta Football League by winning it sixth consecutive time and would ideally want a repeat in the biggest stage of it all.
South Korean midfielder Do Dong-hyun will be the cynosure of all eyes as the red and gold brigade begin their charge for being India's best.
Besides the heavyweights, teams like Shillong Lajong, debutants DSK Shivajians and Aizwal might also spring up with surprises but getting to the top and staying there will be a challenge.
Aizwal captain, David Lalrinmuana is confident they will be able to challenge the top teams in the league.
In the launch ceremony of the I-League on Wednesday the 23-year-old said they were ready to face the champions in their very first contest.