I-League 2013-14: The Best Season In Recent Years?

Wednesday, 19 March 2014|Bhargab Sarmah
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I-League has often been the subject of criticism from various quarters, for different reasons. Over six years since it was remodeled from the National Football League, India’s premier football division hasn’t really had quite a significant growth in terms of popularity, level of competition, and other aspects.

 

However, things have been much brighter in the I-League this season. Despite the disbanding of Pailan Arrows, the pull-out of Mumbai Tigers and the financial troubles of United SC at the beginning of the season, India’s top-flight has, over the course of the ongoing season, managed to grab some serious attention from India’s football following populace.

 

Bengaluru FC’s entry into Indian football has certainly given the league a massive boost this season. In its first season itself, the club has set the standards on how an I-League club should operate. Together with promoted clubs Rangdajied United and Mohammedan Sporting, they have played a significant role in the rise of the overall attendances in I-League games this season.

 

It is no secret that I-League is often been looked down upon by the country’s European football-following urban youth, quite unfairly at times. In their first few months of existence, Bengaluru FC have shown that, with proper marketing, it is indeed possible to bring these fans into following the fortunes of Indian clubs. Their success so far should encourage AIFF to extend the concept of franchisees to more cities across the country.

 

Apart from making some serious noise off-the-field, Bengaluru have been equally brilliant on the pitch as well. At the time of writing, the ‘Men of Steel’ lie 7 points clear at the top of the table, albeit having played more games than its title rivals. Ashley Westwood’s boys, however, still have a big fight in their hands if they are to win the league, considering the club’s next five fixtures, their last of the season, which are anything but easy.

 

The youngest club in I-League will start the league run-in with a daunting trip to Shillong Lajong, which will be followed by a home clash against fellow title-chasers Pune FC. They will then play their last three games away from home, against Mohun Bagan, Dempo and Sporting Clube.

 

At least four other sides are firmly in contention for the I-League title. Pune FC and Salgaocar are 7 points behind, and have played a game less, while Sporting Clube are a further point behind. East Bengal, on the other hand, are 13 points behind the league leaders, but have three games on hand.



Like Bengaluru, Pune have a tough run of games coming up. The Red Lizards will come up against Churchill Brothers and Bengaluru, both away from home, before hosting Salgaocar SC and facing East Bengal twice. They will end their season with a visit to Dempo. Salgaocar have an easier fixture-list on paper, comparatively, with the Goans having only one game left to play outside Goa.

 

Sporting Clube will have a tough run-in themselves, with fixtures against three of their four title rivals left to play. Meanwhile, East Bengal, who at one point looked like a firm favorite for the title, have seen their chances diminish in recent weeks. However, with three games in hand over Bengaluru, the Red-and-gold are still in with a shout in the title race.

 

East Bengal will be aided by a comparatively favorable fixture-list, although they will have to hope that Bengaluru drop points in at least a couple of their games if they are to win the title. Bengaluru, on the other hand, hold their fortunes on their own hands. Winning 4 of their 5 remaining games will effectively hand them their title. However, with quite a few fixtures featuring the title-chasing sides coming up in the next few weeks, there could well be a few twists before the season finishes.

 

The teams involved in the scramble for the title has pleasantly surprised quite a few neutral observers this season. With Dempo and Churchill being accepted as the favorites at the beginning of the season, few would have expected the title-race to unfold in this manner. With so many sides challenging for the title, the 2013-14 title race is turning out to be the most competitive in recent years.

 

However, if the title-race has been interesting, the competition at the bottom of the table has been absolutely breathtaking. The bottom end of the table, at present, is cramped up with six sides fighting neck-and-neck to avoid the sole relegation spot. At the bottom are Churchill Brothers, the outgoing I-League champions and the recent winners of the Federation Cup.

 

Rangdajied United had occupied the last spot for quite some time before three wins on the trot propelled them to the 8th spot in the league table. The Shillong-based club are, however, far from being safe yet. Hering Shangpliang’s men are on a brilliant run of three straight wins, including one over league leaders Bengaluru FC, but with a tough run of games coming up, the Blues will have to nick home a few more points to guarantee their I-League status for next season.
 


Rangdajied have two games left to play at home, both of which are against top half teams, Shillong Lajong and Sporting Goa. Two of the other three away games are, meanwhile, against title-chasing sides.

 

Churchill Brothers, with 15 points from 17 games, lie in danger of dropping into I-League 2 next season. The Red Machines have been shockingly poor this season, and despite investing in quite a few foreigners throughout the season, they haven’t been able to recover from a slow start to the campaign.

 

Mohammedan Sporting, United SC, Mumbai FC and Mohun Bagan are the other sides involved in the league survival dogfight. Mohun Bagan’s involvement in the lower half of the table has been another surprise this season. The Mariners remain 6 points above the drop zone, but having played 3 games more than Churchill, few would be willing to bet on their survival chances yet.

 

There will be six more games featuring two bottom 6 sides this season, which means that things could get even more interesting in the coming weeks. The next few weeks definitely promises to bring some serious thrills for the Indian football fans. The competitiveness witnessed in both halves of the table certainly bodes well for the domestic game.


Another positive aspect that has been visible this season is the diminishing difference in quality between the I-League sides. No side has been able to completely dominate the league, whereas no club has been overtly poor either. The fact that Rangdajied United, placed at the bottom of the table for most part of the season, have given most of the top sides a run for their money in the league, that the league-leading Bengaluru and Pune sides have encountered defeats to bottom-placed sides, speaks volumes of the league’s competitiveness. 

 

The quality of football, meanwhile, looks to be on the up too. The foreigners brought in this season have been huge additions to the league. The Darryl Duffys and the Cornell Glens have definitely spiced things up in I-League. The football being played has been an improvement over the previous seasons. More games under floodlights, the emergence of Bengaluru FC, the rise of the Shillong clubs, etc. point at exciting things ahead for Indian football.

 

While the I-League has seen bright times in the past, the overall aspects of the league have certainly improved this season. With the final stages of the season coming up, 2013-14 could produce some more exciting moments ahead. There is no doubt that, under the revamped model, 2013-14 has been the best Indian season so far. Although there is still a vast scope for improvement, there are no reasons why one shouldn’t feel excited by the league’s progress this season.

 

At a time when IMG-Reliance are focusing on ‘popularizing Indian football’ with their launch of a pensioners’ reality show, the I-League’s success clearly illustrates the area where the priorities of the domestic game’s stakeholders should lie.