I-League 2018/19: The Mohun Bagan-East Bengal conundrum - Striving for existence in a dying league
The great debate
The Indian Super League may have punched the sport to a different level in this part of the world in all aspects, but somehow it had also undermined the fate of traditional clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. I-League has been given its due respect, but we cannot deny the fact that it gets largely overshadowed by the ISL. Huge investments, major foreign recruits which are backed by corporate bodies make the ISL teams more marketable. On the other hand, century-old clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are living life on a banana skin with the minor sponsors at their disposal.
Although, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) apparently portrays that both the league are being given its due respect, but in reality, the picture is quite different. The coveted 7.30 pm kick off slot has been awarded to the Indian Super League which attracts the maximum viewership. Whereas the timings for the I-League matches have been shuffled around in to fill in the remaining slots. The glitz and glamour are present in the ISL while the I-League is the top division league only for official reasons.
The 'Big Two'
There is no denying that the ‘big two’ (Mohun Bagan and East Bengal) will enjoy the same popularity in the I-League too, but their grandeur will slowly get diminished in the context of the Indian football as well as in Asia. The importance given to the ISL can be easily recognised with the lion’s share of the Indian players flocking to the cash-rich league to get a hand on a lucrative deal rather than play in I-League teams.
For example, out of the players which won the I-League for Mohun Bagan back in 2015, most of them have shifted their loyalties towards ISL clubs. In fact, the players which fare well in an I-League season are subsequently roped in by an ISL club in the following season with for handsome amount. It still proves that the I-League is the actual breeding ground for young Indian talents. In fact, most of the players in the national team have been called owing to their contributions in the I-League.
Teams like DSK Shivajians, Royal Wahingdoh, Mumbai FC have closed down their activities owing to the fact that the so-called topmost league in the country is losing importance as a whole and the AIFF does not have a proper plan for the I-League. Salgaoncar FC, a former I-League champion, pulled out due to AIFF’s bias against the competition. The Goa-based outfits now compete in the local league which is really a disappointing sight for such a club with a glorious history!
Setting the trend
Let us take the example of Bengaluru FC, which started its operations just a few years back and is funded by corporate giants JSW group. Since its inception, it has won a trophy in each and every season. After playing in the I-League for the first three years, the Bengaluru based club in playing in the Indian Super League after a successful bid last year. Needless to say, it has shown Indian football professionalism which clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal lack.
Last year, both the teams had an opportunity to make an entry to the ISL, but they preferred to stay in the I-League. But the question is how long will the ‘big two’ maintain their foothold in Indian football by playing in a league which is losing its importance day by day. Somewhere down the line, these clubs have a look into the bigger picture. It is true that clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will get support even if they continue playing in the I-League but it needs to adapt to certain changes to make its existence felt in the country.
The way ahead
Although East Bengal is now backed by QUESS Corp Pvt Ltd, it is yet to bid for the ISL. The red and gold brigade has invested hugely in the transfer market for the upcoming season of the I-League and has successfully finished their pre-season in Malaysia. It has shown professionalism to some extent which is a prerequisite to survive in the Indian Super League which they hope to be a part of in the near future. East Bengal is yet to win an I-League title but came close in a few occasions in the past.
On the other hand, Mohun Bagan has not yet found a suitable sponsor to invest in its operations but it needs a backup urgently to make a bid for the glamorous league. The ‘Mariners’ has always been plagued with internal problems, snitch between internal groups, non-payment of salaries and it still continues.
The bosses are yet to zero in on a potential sponsor and is unlikely that they are going to bid for the Indian Super League the next season. Whereas arch-rivals East Bengal are slowly taking strides to make an entry to the 8-month league which is the real crowd puller in the nation.
As far as the development of Indian football is concerned, there should be a unified league with provisions for mandatory relegation and promotion to and from the second tier. Apart from the above mentioned ‘big two’, teams like Aizawl FC, Lajong FC and NEROCA FC also enjoy a huge fan base, it is high time that these clubs also push for an up-gradation.
Minerva Punjab FC, the defending I-League champions will their playing third season while debutants Real Kashmir will be looking to impress in the upcoming season. To sum it up, a unified league is the only solution for the sake of Indian football and also for the existence of clubs with a rich legacy!