The 2020-21 season of Indian football wore a gloomy look at the beginning. Playing without spectators was always going to be a challenge, but compounding it further was the likely absence of the Kolkata Derby in the national leagues.
Mohun Bagan had already made their way into the ISL, but East Bengal's participation remained uncertain at the beginning of the campaign.
Thankfully, with the aid of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, East Bengal acquired an investor and submitted their ISL bid papers on Wednesday. Now their announcement to play in the cash-rich league remains a mere formality.
But with both the Kolkata giants and the stardom associated with it gone, how does the future of the I-League look?
The league officially lost its status as the top tier of Indian football last season when AFC released its roadmap. This, combined with the sub-par broadcasting, meant fans had very few reasons to watch the I-League.
However, not everything is lost. The I-League winner still gets a direct group stage entry into the AFC Cup, whereas the ISL playoffs winner has to make their way through the qualifiers. The ISL league stage winners, however, can directly participate at the AFC Champions League.
Fans will still follow I-League
The average stadium attendance of the I-League will likely dip a little. But NEROCA, TRAU, and Gokulam Kerala have proven themselves to be decent crowd-pullers. Braving the harsh climatic conditions to throng the 10,000 seating capacity stadium, the enthusiasm of Real Kashmir fans is also praise-worthy.
While East Bengal and Mohun Bagan took a pan-India approach of hiring players, the other I-League clubs went local. The move paid dividends too. The Indian core of Aizawl, Minerva Punjab, and Chennai City FC comprised mainly of players from Mizoram, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu respectively, when they won the title.
But most importantly, what separates I-League from ISL is its conventional approach to the league system.
As ISL doesn't have a relegation system, clubs who go out of playoff contention, don't have any motivation to perform at the later stages of the tournament. For example, NorthEast United FC had just four substitute players on the bench against Hyderabad FC last season.
However, two seasons back in the I-League, Aizawl FC went full throttle when they were fighting relegation and conjured a draw against East Bengal. That tie proved to be costly for the Red and Golds as they missed the title by a point, finishing behind Chennai City FC. Aizawl, on the other hand, successfully fended off relegation.
The scenario is no different at the other end either. With playoff spots already decided, the last round of matches often become dead rubbers. But barring the last season, I-League has always seen a photo finish in the title race. Hence, competitiveness is maintained throughout.
Moreover, the winner of the I-League from the 2022-23 season stands a chance to play in the ISL without paying the franchise fee. This provides clubs ample time to implementa solid framework to compete financially later.
Mohun Bagan and East Bengal's transition from the I-League to the ISL is more the latter's profit than the former's loss. The former would lose its sheen but not its beauty.Published 19 Sep 2020, 15:13 IST