Sensing the need to arrest the decline in the state of football in the country, the I-League was brought into existence for the 2007/08 league season by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). The erstwhile National Football League (NFL) which had been in place for a decade until then was re-branded and relaunched into a new competition that would feature 10 teams under the watchful eyes of then AIFF Chairman Priyaranjan Das Munshi. And so the I-League was born.
The eight teams from the 2006/07 NFL season and two teams from the second division were brought in to play out the very first I-League season. Since then the competition has held its format with a system of promotion from and relegation to the second division built into it. It has been India's top league, by itself for the first eight seasons and then jointly with the Indian Super League (ISL) since its inception in 2014.
Each team plays 18 matches with the season generally running from November/December to March/April. The top three teams also get a chance to play in continental competition the next season (AFC Champions League and AFC Cup) depending on their position.
Minerva Punjab, in triumphing in the 2017/18 season, became the sixth different team to win the league with Goan club Dempo being the inaugural champions. Incidentally, Dempo still have won it the most number of times, winning it thrice overall (2007/08, 2009/10, 2011/12). Teams from Goa in fact dominated the league in the early years with the first six editions shared between Dempo, Salgaocar SC and Churchill Brothers. Bengaluru FC (twice), Aizawl FC and Mohun Bagan are the other teams to have taken home the title.
Nigerian Ranti Martins is the all-time leading goalscorer in the I-League with 185 strikes to his name. He is a good 20 goals ahead of his countryman Odafa Okolie who sits second with 165. Martins and Okolie both played together for Dempo in the inaugural season as their lethal form made the Goan side a powerhouse in those formative years. Okolie was the Golden Boot winner for the first three seasons while Martins picked it up in the next three and twice more later on in East Bengal colours.
Martins is a legend as far as Indian league football is concerned with a record 214 goals to his name across all seasons (including NFL). He also holds the record for most goals in a single season, scoring a stunning 32 goals in Dempo's 2011-12 title-winning campaign.
Bhaichung Bhutia and current India captain Sunil Chhetri are the two top Indians in the scoring charts with 89 and 79 goals to their name respectively.
Chhetri in fact holds the record for most goals scored during a campaign by an Indian, for his 14 goals in Bengaluru FC's debut season in 2013-14 where they went on to win it. He is also a 4-time I-League winner with three different clubs - Dempo in 2009/10, Churchill Brothers in 2012/13 and Bengaluru FC in 2013/14 and 2015/16.
The I-League has also witnessed some of the best coaches in Indian football take to the sidelines. Armando Colaco, widely considered one of the best coaches in the history of Indian football, enjoyed tremendous success in the I-League as his all-conquering Dempo side won all of their three titles under his tutelage.
In total, four of the title-winning coaches have been Indian, Minerva Punjab's Khogen Singh the latest entrant in the winners' circle. Colaco, Mariano Dias and Khalid Jamil, who scripted Aizawl FC's wonderful run in 2016/17 are the other members of that illustrious group.
Three foreign coaches meanwhile have earned the winner's medal with Ashley Westwood the most recent one when he won it twice with Bengaluru FC. Serbia's Zoran Dordevic was the first foreigner to successfully coach a side to the I-League crown when he did it with Churchill Brothers in 2008/09. Bencherifa was coach of Salgaocar during their lone success.
The future of the I-League, however, has come under the scanner, of late, with the advent of the Indian Super League. While the two leagues ran paralleled as the highest divisions in Indian football for four seasons, things are set to change. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has said that there will be only one top division from the upcoming season, with ISL most likely to get the nod. Meanwhile, the I-League is most likely to become the second tier in a three-tier system.
A number of top I-League clubs like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and champions-elect Minerva Punjab have shown interest in playing the ISL, which is why we could see more new teams in the I-League next seasons. While the AIFF is yet to take a final call on this, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has made it clear that there needs to be one clear-cut top division in the country.
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