India: No Country for I-League?
When the Indian Super League started in 2014 everyone in the country was excited and happy about the prospect of having a short tournament with multiple channels broadcasting it and every team having well known and financially stable entities owning them.
The I-League fraternity also had high hopes from the league. Some of them also felt that after a long wait their time of revival and prominence had finally arrived thanks to their rich cousins the Indian Super League.
The setup of the first few seasons was such that both the leagues ran one after the other, with the short ISL finishing off within two months and then the "First Tier" league of India, the I-League, started.
But, then clouds of doubt began forming above the I-League club owners and players too. With no change in sponsorships, ground conditions, fixtures, lacklustre telecast and promotion, the premier club competition in India was shadowed by its wealthy cousin the Indian Super League.
With lack of pressure, more rewards and glamour on offer in the Indian Super League, the players slowly started making their way to a permanent contract with the ISL clubs.
The I-League clubs had one bargaining chip with them, and that was the players. Slowly even that went out of their control as players left the I-League clubs for ISL franchises.
Generally, a club would have wanted to get something out of the players they nurtured and shaped, but even that didn't happen as the players left after their contracts were and transfer fee or loan amounts were out of the question.
Somehow the I-League stood firm and kept moving determinedly to make a name for itself, but then the Administrators turned a blind eye towards the league as poor scheduling, and lack of promotion hurt the league even severely.
The clubs had very few revenue sources, and even that was destroyed due to these factors. The only two things the I-League could boost of now was the fairytale success of two clubs in back to back seasons (Aizawl FC and Minerva Punjab) and having two of the biggest clubs in India playing in the I-League (East Bengal and Mohun Bagan).
The second point though is a doubt in itself as from the time Bengaluru FC, the I-League's best friend of recent times, ditched the league to partner its cousin.
Questions have been raised as to how long till the big two of Kolkata join hands with the ISL and leave the already dying I-League.
If there is something that is worse than being an I-League club owner or administrator at the moment, then it has to be an I-League player.
Anyone who follows Indian football closely will know that the quality of Indian playing in the I-League is on par with the Indian players playing in the ISL despite the five-year-old league boasting of having many star names of Indian football.
The Super Cup bore testament to the fact that despite many newborn Indian football fans claim the ISL to be the numero uno league in the country, the I-League with all its drawbacks and problems still had more than few tricks up its sleeve to punch a hole in ISL's claim of being the runaway better league in the country.
The I-League still had something that the ISL still wasn't able to do and it was producing players. Despite being five years old, none of the ISL franchise has taken concrete steps to build an academy and still rely on the I-League to get new players.
The present scenario is such that if you play in the I-League than you cannot dream of playing in the national team.
Stephen Constantine's recent team selection proves this statement. If we compare the past three national team announcements, then we can see that only one player Salam Ranjan Singh has been named in the squad even though a lot of other talented players hold the potential to play for the National team.
Imagine a situation in the upcoming Jordan friendly both the teams are tied 0-0 and India get a free kick from 25 yards out, who takes it? Udanta? Halicharan? Pranay? Vinit? Narayan?
Well someone is bound to take it, but none of them is what we call set-piece specialists. With all due respect to Sunil Chhetri, even the captain cool is not someone whom we can call as a set-piece specialist.
The I-League boasts of some of India's best set-piece specialists in Samuel Lalmuanpuia the Shillong Lajong captain, but then who needs Set-Piece specialist eeh?
"We're looking for any Indian player that can make us better. I don't know which league they go to play. That's not under my control. Some players can help us. Picking somebody else now means he needs to be better than what we have."
These are Stephen Constantine's words on why he selected only one I-League player, and there is my issue with the Englishman's viewpoint his team has no dead ball specialists, plus the team lacks a proper creative midfielder both roles which can easily be played by Samuel.
His squad includes players like Anas and Sumit Passi, but both are players who have had very little game time in the ISL.
Players like Jesuraj and Danmawia Ralte who have been very good for quite some time are still ignored.
When Sunil Chhetri was ruled out of the Jordan friendly a lot of people felt that finally, Samuel would get the much needed national team call-up but instead Komal Thatal got a call-up, a player who has just started making the playing XI for his ISL team. Samuel, on the other hand, is someone who has been performing brilliantly since last season.
Seeing all these things take place and the I-League being ignored in all levels it is very safe to say that the premier club competition of India (yes, the I-League is still recognised as the premier league of the country and ISL is identified as a cup tournament) is something which the country doesn't deserve. India is just not the ideal place for the I-League.