The relegation battle of the I-League 2021-22 season came to a frantic end on Wednesday, with the fate of Kenkre FC and Real Kashmir hanging in the balance even minutes before the final whistle. With both clubs fighting and hanging on till the very end, the skirmish for survival yet again accentuated the beauty of league football.
In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda, All India Football Federation (AIFF) Leagues CEO Sunando Dhar on Wednesday underlined the scenes of the euphoric celebrations after Real Kashmir managed to stay up on the final day of the season. He said the celebrations signified the beauty of having relegation and promotion in league football:
"Like the usual tradition in the I-League, the relegation battle went down to the wire this season too. Even with six minutes left, anything could have happened until Indian Arrows scored against Kenkre FC. The way Real Kashmir celebrated after the final whistle, it seemed like they had won the league. So I think that's the beauty of relegation. You fight for survival and for satisfaction."
However, the country's top-tier footballing competition, the Indian Super League, has lacked the chills and thrills that the despair of relegation and euphoria of promotion brings along.
The AIFF has laid down an extensive roadmap for the introduction of promotion in the ISL 2023-24 season onwards. Two years after this change, the promotion-relegation relegation process [from ISL to I-League] will be inculcated. In between those two years, no relegations will take place, thereby increasing the number of teams in the ISL.
With the likes of Gokulam Kerala FC and Mohammedan SC constantly performing at a consistent level at the top, Dhar was questioned if the ISL requires promotion-relegation urgently. The I-League CEO averred:
"We have a roadmap in place, which has been agreed upon not only by the AIFF and the AFC but also the clubs. I think there are already a lot of clubs in the I-League who are working towards next year's promotion. For some clubs, it's about staying in the I-League this year and trying to invest and make a better team so that they can try to win the league next year and get promoted into the ISL."
"So teams have been focusing on that and it’s a good thing. We'll have the promotion in a couple of years and then the relegation format will start too and that's when we’ll have a perfect system in place. Not only will the clubs fight for championships, but as we saw in the I-League, they will fight to stay in the league."
"It has been a combined effort" - Sunando Dhar on hosting a hassle-free I-League season after the restart
Although the relegation battle came to a close with Kenkre FC finishing in the bottom spot, the race for the championship is still wide open with eight more days remaining. The league has sailed smoothly for the most part.
However, when the I-League kicked off in December, there was an air of doubt around the competition. Amid the third Covid-19 wave, multiple I-League clubs suffered breakthrough cases of the virus.
The All-India Football Federation decided to postpone the league temporarily for eight weeks, allowing the players to return to their homes and spend time with their families.
Sunando Dhar said:
"Going into the season, the biggest challenge was the expectations. Since we had done reasonably well to conduct the event previously. However, unfortunately, the third wave of Covid-19 hit us. We could either continue the league or postpone it."
"I think AIFF did the right thing by taking a very prompt decision to suspend the league. We consulted Dr. Harsh Mahajan, who is a member of the AIFF Sports Medical Committee. He assessed that although Omicron spreads very fast, the number of cases too reduces rapidly. He said six weeks should be good enough for the numbers to go down."
Speaking about the Covid outbreak that rocked the initial phase of the season, Dhar reminisced about the horrors of the number of positive cases multiplying overnight.
What were the key takeaways for the organizing committee from that period?
"After the restart, obviously, we needed to be very careful. Got the support of the teams. It's difficult for the players as they're used to training and playing out in the open. But I guess if you ask the players, they would prefer staying and playing rather than not playing. The bio-bubble protocols have been quite strict as well. So it has been a combined effort. Like like we have in football matches, everyone has contributed."
But did the federation at any point have doubts about restarting the I-League at all or thinking of tinkering with the current format?
Sunando Dhar almost instantly replied, saying:
"No, not in my mind."
The AIFF consulted with Dr. Harsh Mahajan and assessed the Omicron situation developing in South Africa. Hence, he was very confident that the league could definitely be restarted and completed by May 31.
With the Covid situation steadily bettering in the country, I-League games have also opened up to fans for the first time since the pandemic. For the Phase II matches of the tournament, which are being hosted in West Bengal, fans have been permitted to into the stadiums.
Dhar took great pride over the achievement of finally bringing the league and the players back in front of the supporters.
"Unfortunately, over the last two years with this bio-bubble and centralized competition, we haven't had the fans inside the stadiums. But as soon as things improved, we thought that it would be a good time to bring in the fans, and hopefully, they enjoyed it. The players also get a high from playing in front of the fans." .