After the hoopla, the glitz, the glamour, the Bollywood and the cricket that surrounded the ISL, it is time for the poorer cousin to take centre-stage. The I-League will begin on Saturday with the defending champions Bengaluru FC hosting Shillong Lajong at the Kanteerava Stadium in Bangalore.
In its 10th year now, the I-League probably assumes more significance now than it ever has. If the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) plans turn out to be executed as planned, this could be the last time we see the I-League as a separate tournament – with a proposed merger between this and the ISL.
But having said that, there have been a fair share of fabulous players to have taken the field in India in the I-League. Players who have changed the course of their teams and contributed a whole lot to the overall development of Indian Football.
We take a look at five such players – individuals who have had the biggest impact on the league, the best players to have graced the I-League in its last nine years.
#1 Odafa Onyeka Okolie
Odafa is probably the deadliest striker to have played in the I-League. He came to Indian football in 2003, when he joined Mohammedan Sporting. But, he catapulted into the limelight around 3 years later, when he joined Churchill Brothers.
Odafa, along with Ranti Martins has been one of the stellar foreigners to have ever played in the I-League.
When the I-League was started, with the disbanding of the National Football League, Odafa took centre-stage for Churchill. After Dempo had won the first season of the I-League, Odafa decided that he was going to impose himself on the league.
In 2007/08, he scored 22 goals in 16 games as he finished as the top-scorer in the league, and Churchill became champions.
He has played for Mohun Bagan and Sporting Clube de Goa in later seasons, but his goalscoring exploits have never stopped. He has scored more than 200 goals in his career in Indian football and at an astounding ratio of almost one goal per game.
When Mohun Bagan signed Odafa in 2010, he became the highest paid footballer ever in Indian football, as he earned around Rs. 2 crores for the duration of the I-League season.
#2 Sunil Chhetri
The golden boy of Indian football. The torchbearer for everything that is right about this sport in this country. But until 2012, Chhetri did not really impose himself on the I-League scene, despite his stunning goal-scoring exploits for the national team.
Chhetri joined Churchill in 2012, after playing for various clubs across the country. He found the net regularly in that season for the Goan side, but the real Sunil Chhetri was seen in the I-League only from the 2014 edition.
He was signed by newcomers Bengaluru FC as their captain. It was clear that Bengaluru wanted to build their side around Chhetri – and they could not have found a better player to do that with.
And their decision has been justified by both Chhetri’s performances and the team’s performances. In the 3 years of their existence in the I-League, Bengaluru have finished 1st, 2nd and 1st. Add to that, a dream run to the AFC Cup final and you know what an impact the club has made to Indian football.
And at the centre of everything has been their no. 11. He has scored goals, he has assisted goals, he has been a nuisance for defenders to deal with, but probably most importantly for Bengaluru, he has been their leader.
The players on the pitch look to Chhetri when there is a need for inspiration. The players on the pitch look to Chhetri when their team is in trouble. And the best part about it is, Chhetri shows them the way, not through his mouth but through his actions. He is as big a leader by example as they come.
#3 Jose Ramirez Barreto
The I-League has seen some brilliant foreigners over the years, but what Barreto brought to the I-League, no one else did. He brought class, he brought tonnes of ability and he brought to the fans the joy of watching a master craftsman at work.
For Mohun Bagan with all their history, he could well go down as the greatest player ever to have worn the famous green and maroon. Sample this, for example, his last game for the Mariners against Pune FC in 2012, there were 35000 spectators at the ground wishing him farewell. That is a larger attendance than some I-League clubs have got over entire seasons.
That is what Barreto brought to Indian football. He scored 238 goals for Bagan and stepped up when the occasion called for him to step up. For Bagan, there is no bigger game than the Kolkata derby against their fierce rivals East Bengal. It is a game in which a loss or a draw would not be an acceptable result for the fans.
And what did Barreto achieve? He became the highest scorer in the history of the Kolkata derby (18 goals), and single-handedly took the Mariners close to winning silverware on many an occasion.
Ultimately, Barreto never won the I-League with Bagan and that will remain a regret for him from his time in India but no one who watched him will ever regret having watched a player who was probably the greatest foreign footballer to set foot on Indian shores.
#4 Ranti Martins
Ranti’s greatest season in India came in 2011/12 when he scored 32 goals for Dempo as the Goan side won their third I-League title. Ranti was the typical no. 9. He was strong, he was powerful, he was quick and he did not let defenders breathe easy for a moment.
Although his greatest achievements came with Dempo, he has not fared too badly in recent seasons either. He moved to United Sports Club and then to East Bengal but his goalscoring exploits never stopped.
In 244 games in Indian football, Ranti scored 214 goals. Like Odafa, his goals to game ratio was astonishing.
Not surprisingly, Ranti was adjudged the best player in the league in 2011/12 and he has been named the best forward in the league on multiple occasions.
Even last year when he was nowhere near his peak, he was the top-scorer in the I-League. That is what Ranti Martins did. It did not matter how well he was playing, he somehow always scored goals.
Roberto Mendes Silva, or Beto as he was more commonly known, was the playmaker that made Ranti tick at Dempo. He possessed all the flair and tricks you expect from Brazilian playmakers and that made him a handful for any I-League defence.
He joined Dempo in 2006 and the move paid off instantly for the Goans as they won the I-League in 2007/08.
Beto’s technical superiority and just his presence on the pitch made him one of the most legendary players to have graced the I-League. His ability to conjure extremely decisive goals at will, out of seemingly nothing was a trait that played a significant part in Dempo’s two title victories when he was with them.
As the years went by, his career was blighted by injuries, but that did nothing to take away from what was a glorious career in India for a glorious footballer.