EVERY WINTER EVENING, a thick fog envelops the city of Kolkata, much like the blankets its inhabitants seek refuge under during the months of cold. Next day, as the sun goes up, the grey curtain slowly dissolves and unveils a city lazily preparing to kick-off its daily activities.
Today, as the fog lifts, a number of its residents are gearing up for a different kind of hustle. Certain flags are being dusted up. A few trucks are being washed and readied to carry a cargo of humans up north across the face of the city. A few local trains from Sealdah are about to see some unusual traffic. All this on a slumbersome Saturday morning because the I-League has returned to the city after seven long months.
Last season when Mohun Bagan brought India's highest league title back to the city after a decade, Kolkata indulged in celebrations for the better part of a month. Multiple victory rallies, numerous functions to felicitate the players and the coach were held in different parts of the West Bengal capital. Today, as the Mariners get their campaign to defend that crown, the supporters are confident as usual, but there is an uncomfortable undercurrent of worry. Because the Mohun Bagan squad looks far from complete ahead of the season opener against newcomers Aizawl FC.
The loan deals of Jeje Lalpekhlua and Pronay Halder are yet to be completed. New foreigner Luciano Sabrosa is arriving in the city tomorrow to complete the signing. Fan favourite attacker Sony Norde is away on national duty. And to add to the pile of worries, 6 players including last season's best keeper Debjit Majumder are busy playing for their office teams: a strange reality regarding player availability that continues to haunt professional football in this country. It's hard to recall another I-League game featuring Mohun Bagan in recent memory when player unavailability has been such a glaring factor.
On top of that there are injuries. Midfielders Bikramjit Singh and Lenny Rodrigues picked up injuries on Friday morning. Lenny will be out for two weeks. Bikramjit will definitely miss today's match.
But that's not the only thing that's plaguing the defending champions' camp ahead of their season-starter. The club is still knee-deep in dispute with their former sponsors, McDowell's. And despite having the added advantage of playing in Asia this season, they haven't managed to rope in a new shirt sponsor yet. The officials are quick to assure everyone that multiple companies are in talks with them and everything will be finalised within another week but that doesn't take away from the fact that the players are going to work with 4 months' payment overdue. That's a highly inauspicious start by any definition.
But none of these worries and grievances take away from the importance of the footballing contest at our hands. Because today, at 4:30 pm in the Barasat Stadium, a packed crowd of 20,000 will witness the historic top division debut of Aizawl FC, the first club from Mizoram to make it to the I-League top-tier.
Handed the toughest start to the campaign of all - playing the top two clubs from last season - the 2nd Division champions from last season will count on their element of surprise more than anything else. Apart from a few known faces, most of their young squad is unknown to most. They are not carrying any baggage of players suffering from ISL-fatigue and are fresh from a Mizoram Premier League campaign where they became the unbeaten champions.
Only 5 players in the Aizawl FC first team are from outside Mizoram. And that includes the four foreigners: Emmanuel Chigozie (Nigeria), Yuta Kinowaki (Japan), Alfred Jaryan (Liberia) and Atsushi Yonezawa (Japan). Most players are young and have been with the squad for a while. They will have the good understanding of a set team that Mohun Bagan clearly lack at this stage.
Aizawl FC's coach Manuel Retamero Fraile, however, is not looking at astronomical targets, and well aware of the enormity of the task ahead of him,
"Our primary aim is to avoid relegation and finish as high in the table as possible... we know there will be a big crowd, the supporters will be with Mohun Bagan, but I have told the boys to play with an open mind. We have nothing to lose."
It's the raw pace of the young opponents that might land the defending champions in trouble. But Mohun Bagan can count on the power of Cornell Glen up front, the creativity of Katsumi Yusa in the middle and Kean Lewis in the wing. Captain Shilton Paul will man the goal, and the likes of Dhanachandra Singh, Raju Gaikwad and Kingshuk Debnath at the back. Most of the players were there when Mohun Bagan tasted victory last season and it's this experience in the squad that puts Aizawl FC in shadow. Although there is no dearth of young players in the Mariners' squad, none of the Aizawl players have played an I-League match before.
But the home team's coach Sanjay Sen is not taking things lightly,
"They are a young squad and we haven't seen much of them. They'll play without pressure. Meanwhile our supporters are dreaming about winning the league again so the pressure will be there... we need 3 points from this game at any cost."
The fog is lifting. The curtain is rising on the I-League 2015-16 season. The league is carrying a few wounds from the summer. It has lost 3 clubs. The season is shorter. The title race is going to be more breakneck and the pressure is on the title challengers to win every game.
And as the fogs accumulate once again towards the end of the afternoon, two clubs will be fighting each other at compact, atmospheric arena of Barasat to get their league campaign underway.
It's a contest between pacy youth and creative, poweful experience. Between aspiration and history. Between the newcomers and the defending champions. The I-League season opener pits two of clubs from the opposite ends of the Indian football against each other, in contest that highlights, more than anything else, the rich diversity that Indian football encapsulates, which makes I-League the flesh-and-blood, far from perfect but gritty and grounded football league it has always been.