13 Teams Fight For Glory in the I-League’s Last Hurray

1996 was a landmark year in Indian football. Till then domestic football meant the Santosh Trophy, several club tournaments and state leagues. The AIFF started the the National Football League, the first pan-India football league in the country, that year with East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting playing the inaugural game at Kolkata’s iconic Salt Lake Stadium.

From there on the NFL (later rechirstened the I-League) has been a gateway for aspiring clubs to Asia. The league’s champions have always been rewarded with the top AFC spot India had to offer except offcourse the last two years when the league has had to cede that priviledge to the ISL for reasons beyond the realm of footballing merit.

With it’s top tier status gone and it’s two biggest names (read East Bengal & Mohun Bagan) also cutting of their ties with it, the I-League is now, predictably, on the back burner. The competition however, still offers a spot in the AFC Cup group stages and hence the teams continue to have something to fight for. Even that however is temporary with all the AFC Spots going to the ISL & whatever Cup competition AIFF introduces from next year. The I-League then will be officially reduced to the second division of Indian club football.

But let’s keep that aside and look at what the upcoming iteration offers. There will 13 teams this time- the highest since 2013-’14. Among the new entrants are Sreenidi Deccan from Vizag in Andhra Pradesh, a welcome addition to the Indian football map. Mumbai has regained it’s representation in the league through Kenkre FC, who found themselves with an unexpected call up following the bizzare fiasco surrounding Chennai City which led to the former champions pulling out. The most interesting addition perhaps are Rajasthan United, the first club from their state to make their way to this level of the country’s football pyramid. They can upset some equations as well, with a young coach and experienced heads like Marcelinho to lead them.

Kolkata giants Mohammedan Sporting are the lone survivors of the 1996 edition along with Churchill Brothers. Mohammedan recently won back the Calcutta league after a gap of 40 years and reached the Durand Cup finals. With a long pre season and a bunch of star players, Mohammedan will be one of the contenders for sure. Churchill too can never be counted out of the I-League title race.

Defending champions Gokulam Kerala have had rough times in the Durand Cup and IFA Shield but there is no doubt about the flair Vincenzo Annese’s men possess. Sreenidi will be looking to the full distance in their 1st season itself with the wily Fernando Santiago and a host of players from Gokulam and TRAU. The former Durand winning coach recently took his side to the IFA Shield final and will be looking to bag the I-League in his 3rd attempt.

Speaking of the IFA Shield, two time champions Real Kashmir will be in the reckoning as always with the versatile Mason Robertson being joined by Fran Gonzalez, formerly of Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan. Mason’s dad David continues to boast of one of the league’s most miserly defenses.

Two time I-League winner Ashley Westwood has assembled an array of his former Bengaluru wards at RG Punjab FC. Old warhorses like Robin Singh, Rino Anto, CK Vineeth, Gurtej Singh, Lalthumawia Ralte and others will be eager to show that they are not be counted out just yet.

Manipur outfits NEROCA (who got an excemption from relegation) and TRAU will continue to bank on local talents & underrated foreigners while Yan Law former champions Aizawl FC can be the dark horses with players like Bazie Armand, Dipanda Dicka and former golden boot winner Willis Plaza.

As usual the competiton will be fierce in the I-League’s last season of continental relevance. Tune in to 1Sports from 26th December onwards.

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