The world rankings released by FIFA earlier this week place India at 168 on the list of its 209-member nations. It’s the second-most populous country’s lowest-ever ranking.
So it was indeed brave — or frivolous, depending on how you look at it — of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel to declare that India’s target should be to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Within the fraternity itself, the announcement was met with scepticism rather than enthusiasm. Is the AIFF looking too far ahead? Perhaps.
For any country to be successful at the world level, it is imperative to have a strong domestic league. It needn’t necessarily be glamorous or cash-rich but it has to be competitive, should unearth new talents, polish them and make them worthy of playing for the national team. As the sixth edition of the I-League kicks off today, one really wonders if this is a competition strong enough to push India through to the next level.
For everyone involved, it’s been a summer of discontent. The clubs are upset over the lack of efforts AIFF has made to bolster the I-League. The AIFF is not entirely happy with its commercial partners IMG-Reliance for not managing to get a title sponsor, among many other things. IMGR, even after a year, seems to be busy figuring out the modalities of Indian football.
This, in fact, could be a make or break season for I-League in its current avatar. The composition of the I-League makes the tournament anything but pan-India. Three big cities — Kolkata, Goa and Mumbai — usually have four clubs each. That’s 12 out of a total 14 clubs in the top flight, which doesn’t help give a ‘national’ feel to the league. The north, south and centre of the country are not represented at all at the moment, and the promotion system leaves little chance for clubs from these regions to improve and reach the top tier. Newly-promoted ONGC are based in Mumbai but they will play their home matches in Delhi, where the league does not have a permanent representative.
The AIFF has toyed with the idea of a zonal league — something on the lines of USA’s Major League Soccer — where the winner of each zone will enter into a play-off championship season. That hasn’t materialised. There are plans to start an IPL-style league which will feature international stars as well but that won’t take place before 2014.
Focus on the league
Despite the discontentment all around, not minding the poor infrastructure and playing in front of empty stands, the clubs and players have often made sure that the league, somehow, survives. While the off-the-field drama has been quite enthralling, one hopes the scenes on-field will be half as exciting. Current holders Dempo start as clear favourites. The five-time champions have had a good pre-season and looked quite menacing in the Federation Cup. Dempo reached the final of the Federation Cup with only one foreigner in their squad. That speaks volumes of the quality of the Indian players in their squad. They are expected to get better once their British import Rohan Ricketts, a former Arsenal and Tottenham midfielder, gets comfortable with the conditions here. “I’m quite satisfied. I think the team is well-balanced, the players are gelling well and high on confidence. We did not play Rohan in the Federation Cup. He is still getting used to the conditions but he is enjoying training,” Dempo coach Armando Colaco said.
Dempo’s main rivals would be Federation Cup winners East Bengal. Coached by Englishman Trevor Morgan, East Bengal paid a heavy price for dropping a few crucial points at the start of last season. Youngsters such as Lalrindika Ralte and striker Manandeep Singh add excitement to their squad, while old guards Edeh Chidi and Sanju Pradhan provide the much-needed experience. East Bengal’s city rivals Mohun Bagan boast of a solid squad but they have struggled to combine well as a team.
However, the team that has risen from nowhere and emerged as a dark horse is Prayag United. The team has made their ambitions clear by signing former Costa Rica international Carlos Hernandez and veteran national players Gouramangi Singh and Subrata Pal. They will keep their fingers, and cheques, crossed and hope for a good finish.
The return of Baichung Bhutia to top flight football, too, should make the league more appealing. His team, United Sikkim, adds romance to the league — just like Shillong Lajong did a couple of seasons ago. They will play their home games in the picturesque Himalayan backdrop of Gangtok, where the excitement about the prospect of professional football is quite high.
There have been some interesting signings during the off season. The Indian clubs have generally paid a fortune for a rather mediocre foreign player in the past. But the trend seems to be changing. Players like Ricketts, Hernandez — who was the Australian League’s footballer of the year in 2010 — and also the existing ones, should improve the overall standard of the league.
These are the kind of signings Indian clubs should be making. It’ll not only boost the quality of the league but it will also give the young Indian players at the club an opportunity to learn something new and better.
The scheduling too is better this year. With majority of the matches to be held on weekends, and under lights, one can expect a better turnout. The teams from Goa and Mumbai are also expected to have better facilities at par with international standards by the end of this year. “The mood on the eve of the start of the league is upbeat. There are teams out there who are doing their best to dethrone us but we will be no pushovers and we have proved that in the Federation Cup. There are three-four teams who will fancy their chances. It’ll be a very interesting season for sure,” Colaco concluded.