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I-League 2017: 11th Edition Set to Test Indian Football’s Bench Strength

The 11th edition of the I-League, India’s premier footballing tournament, is set to begin on Saturday and unlike previous seasons, it will not have the crème de la crème of India’s current’s footballers.

Abhimanyu Sen | News18 Sports

Updated:November 25, 2017, 12:46 PM IST
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I-League 2017: 11th Edition Set to Test Indian Football’s Bench Strength
The 11th edition of the I-League, India’s premier footballing tournament, is set to begin on Saturday and unlike previous seasons, it will not have the crème de la crème of India’s current’s footballers.
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New Delhi: The 11th edition of the I-League, India’s premier footballing tournament, is set to begin on Saturday and unlike previous seasons, it will not have the crème de la crème of India’s current’s footballers. Most, if not all of the national team players under Stephen Constantine ply their trade in the more lucrative Indian Super League, in effect opening an avenue for more home grown talent to step up to the plate.

The 10 team competition spreads out across quite a considerable amount of the country in terms of geographical area. From Minerva FC in the north, to Imphal in the east with Neroca alongside defending champions Aizawl FC, to Gokulam FC in God’s own country – Kerala and last but not the least Churchill Brothers in Goa. Even though Maharashtra doesn’t feature in the scheme of things the spread has more than enough variety.

Over the last couple of years thanks to the FIFA U-17 World Cup, there has been a lot of talk about the importance of having a strong grass root system or good bench strength to fall back on.

Co-incidental or not, the All India Football Federation’s honcho’s brought their heads together and decided that given the situation it would be best to blood India’s U-17 World Cup squad along with some U-19 players into the next edition of the I-League – the reason cited was development.
“Feel the I-League will be good exposure in terms of match experience and temperament to prepare for the future.” Former India footballer Shyam Thapa was quoted saying earlier in the year.

A full developmental squad in the top flight, just like the time of the Palian Arrows earlier in the decade, this time though the AIFF is seemingly more confident of financial backing.

Far away from the Arrows, one of the teams most affected by the Indian Super League being the pick for the premier national players has been Mohun Bagan. The Green and Maroon brigade have taken a blow in all departments of the playing field – goalkeeper Debjit Majumdar moved to ATK, Anas Edathodika went to Jamshedpur, Pritam Kotal moved to the national capital with the Delhi Dynmos, Pronay Halder is in FC Goa, while the likes of Kean Lewis, Sehnaj Singh, Souvik Chakraborty, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh all found other franchises in the ISL.

The blow that was below the belt was Katsumi Yusa, the captain, joining their staunchest arch rivals East Bengal.

Bereft of the star power manager Sanjoy Sen had to rebuild along with and around the talismanic Sony Norde.

“I enjoy working with younger players.” Before the Mohun Bagan man joined the I-League he worked with the Indian youth teams alongside Colin Toal from 2007-2010. Sen adds that between the two legacy clubs it is difficult to get a chance to work with younger players but he is more than happy in doing so.

He points out, “It is my duty as a coach to ensure my players are motivated and ready for the season. The young players need to step up and take the chance.”

“As the coach of a club where there is always the pressure of the tag and history, I hope I get to see many young talents come through the system,” he adds.

Sen though is not unduly worried about banking on youngsters – as the likes of Chesterpaul Lyngdoh, Azharuddin Mallick, Debabrata Roy, Abhishek Das Naro Hari Shrestha, Gurjinder Kumar and Ricky Lallawmawma to name a few, made a good start with the Calcutta Football League.

“It is important to treat the talented players well and groom them. It is also important to promote and market the competition well,” Sen quipped and further added, “This is the first time I am attending a big opening to the season like this. More of this will only help.”

Clearly, the man who helped Mohun Bagan back to the top in 2015 after more than a decade was interested in investing in youth.

Across the Kolkata Maidan, East Bengal’s wait for the title has been more painful. Captain Arnab Mondal shoots back when the topic is raised. A year ago, Mehtab Hossain promised to leave the club if he didn’t bring back the title – co-incidentally he turns out for Jamshedpur FC in the ISL.

Mondal and Khalid Jamil the coach though will have to deal with much lesser numbers in terms of the young crop as they have managed to sign some of the best Indian names outside the top brass.

The likes of Brandon Vanlalremdika, Laldanmawia Ralte, Salam Ranjan Singh, VP Suhair and Mehtab Singh are the newer lot – they were all part of a squad the saw the Red and Gold bring home a record 39th Calcutta Football League crown earlier this year.

That was Khalid Jamil’s first tournament with the squad, and all of the Indian football fraternity would agree he is well acquainted with working on limitations. His title winning Aizawl’s overall budget wasn’t a patch on the either of the Maidan’s big two.

Mondal explains, “This is a platform for newer and younger players to come to the forefront. This is a very good opportunity for the boys in the Arrows team also.”

“More than anything, the players, if they want to make something out of this chance they need to be responsible and act accordingly,” he reasons.

Considering the young guns listen to the captain’s message – East Bengal would definitely be in the contention for silverware come summer of 2018.

Speaking of silverware, defending champions Aizawl FC’s dream team has been majorly hit by the transfer window. Once coach Jamil moved on, the likes of Jayesh Rane, Albino Gomes, Mahmoud Al Amna and Ashutosh Mehta also found new teams.

The four alongside Alfred Kemah Jaryan helped form the very core of the championship winning team, with Al Amna being instrumental without an iota of doubt.

On field mentors now, Alfred and captain Shylo Malsawmtluanga, will have to blend their experience with a squad brimming with young talented and gritty players if they are to pull of anything of the same magnitude – retaining a title is amongst the most daunting tasks in football.

The young keeper Lalremruata Arema may not have excelled yet in the Mizoram Premier League, but William Lalnunfela who knows a thing or two about high pressure situations will have to up the ante. Lalrinzuala Khiangte, William Lalnunfela, Liandala Sena and Jonathan Lalrawngbawla are among the other who will fight it out as they aim to squeeze their way into Stephen Constantine’s squad.

The Portuguese coach Paulo Menzes Coelho is likely to have a cruel initiation to management in the top tier. India’s champions or India’s Leicester City as they had been nicknamed after their best season ever have not done well so far in the Mizoram Premier League but a change in momentum can come about as quickly as turning a corner.

“The core of the team from last time has moved on, but this is our chance to rebuild an exciting team. The fans are very intense and they deserve it,” Paulo says.

“We are the champions, and we will be difficult to beat in the season. Especially at home,” asserts the tactician, who was part of Spain’s Golden Era’s coaching entourage led by Vicente del Bosque.

Last season, the young men Nim Dorjee Tamang and Isaac Vanmalsawma shone for Shillong Lajong, while Jerry Mawihmingthanga and Lallianzuala Chhangte were the brightest spots for the DSK Shivajians team.

Minerva FC threw in their fair share and more of young blood into the mix. Their owner is strongly of the opinion that it is better to invest in home grown talent over foreigners, even if it is mostly because it aids his budgetary concerns.

Add to this the fact that since taking over in his second stint as manager of the Indian national team, Stephen Constantine in his two years has handed more than a whopping 30 players their senior team debuts. The Englishman has always been extremely vocal about his support and the need for a strong bench.

It is not likely that Indian football will find their next Sunil Chhetri or Gurpreet Singh Sandhu this season, but unlike the previous years, it will be easier to make a noise.

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| Edited by: Arjit Dabas
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