I-League 2018/19 Set to Kick Off as Indian Football Braces For Domestic Overhaul
The I-League 2018/19 kicks off even as uncertainty over its status as the top league in Indian football looms large, but the unpredictable nature of the league and some top quality teams to watch out for means fans can expect another season of highs and lows.
Indian football’s domestic structure has revolved around a single major league since 1996 when the decision to launch the National Football League (NFL) was taken. That league was eventually succeeded by the I-League.
However, the introduction of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014 meant that sooner rather than later, an overhaul of the domestic structure was inevitable. That a revamp of sorts was needed became clearer when both the ISL and the I-League ran parallel in the 2017/18 season.
Now the AIFF have finally confirmed that they are indeed planning on a restructured league that will include all Indian clubs, which could well mean that the I-League is on its last legs.
But while the winds of change are indeed blowing in Indian football, the clubs and players are still bracing for what is likely to be another competitive season.
Clear Title Favourites
The last two seasons of the I-League have seen unexpected winners crop up. Aizawl FC defied all odds to win the title in the 2016/17 season whereas Minerva Punjab were the ones lifting the trophy earlier this year.
Both teams won the trophy on the final day of the season, showcasing the unpredictability and suspense that fans can be treated to in a league that doesn’t include knockout rounds.
However, neither of these sides seems likely to be in contention for the title this time around. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan start every season as favourites to win the league but this season it is the latter that appear primed to take home the trophy.
With Aser Pierrick Dipanda Dicka and Henry Kisekka leading the forward line, it’s hard to see any defence fancy their chances up against the Mariners. Throw Sony Norde into the mix – fitness permitting – and the prospect of facing Bagan becomes even scarier.
East Bengal started last year as favourites but an implosion of form towards the end of the season saw them finish fourth despite leading the league table at one point.
Now under new management and new ownership, it will be interesting to see if they can finally get their hands on the trophy without the pressure of the ‘favourites’ tag.
That being said, the history of the I-League has been littered with surprise winners and it would be par for the course if one of the other teams finished atop the standings next year.
Minerva Punjab might not start their title defence as favourites but they remain a decent side even after losing key players like winger Chencho Gyeltshen and defender Sukdhdev Singh.
They too are under new management so it will be interesting to see if they can defy the odds again and become the first side to defend the I-League title.
Real Kashmir, the newly-promoted side that became the first professional team from Kashmir to play in India’s top division, will also be something of an X-factor in the league.
They should be a force to reckon with at home and not just because of vocal fan support; the high altitude and low temperatures at their home ground will pose an additional challenge to travelling teams.
There is also NEROCA FC, who will play their second season in the top flight this time around and nearly won the league last year.
It remains to be seen how well they fare this time around under the tutelage of Manuel Retamaro Fraile but a finish on the top cannot be ruled out entirely.
Churchill Brothers will no doubt be keen to make a mark after being exempt from relegation by the AIFF. The Goan side – twice I-League champions – will be keen to ensure no such repeat of the disaster that was last season.
Best of the Rest
The Indian Arrows, now under the stewardship of the more attack-minded Floyd Pinto, will once again feature in the tournament and their games should continue to generate interest.
Consisting mostly of the boys who represented India in the FIFA U-17 World Cup last year, the Arrows will be looking to further their growth and cement their statuses as future India internationals.
There’s also Shillong Lajong, who have not signed a single foreign player this season and will look to build their team around local players.
The approach is a noble one, even if it means they will likely be in and around the lower parts of the table and might even find themselves in a relegation scrap.
Gokulam Kerala had a good run last year especially towards the later stages of the league. They will be keen to improve on their showings this time around.
Chennai City FC avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth last year. Having signed a few new players as well as brought in a new head coach, they will hope to put the disappointments of last season behind them.
Aizawl, who were champions just two seasons back, look likely to settle for a spot in the middle of the table as well. It remains to be seen what kind of an impact the appointment of Gift Raikhan – the man who managed NEROCA last season – will have on the side.
Yet as mentioned earlier, unpredictability has been this league’s calling card and it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if one of the more unfancied sides emerged on top.
The first game of the season is on October 26 and will be contested by the Indian Arrows and Chennai City FC in Chennai.
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