With just 1 day to go, question arises; will the I-League ever get close to ISL popularity?
The I-League season is about to begin with Shillong Lajong playing the first match away to Bengaluru FC and although Indian football has come a long way, questions still arise to the popularity of the I-league. The Indian Super League saw the number of viewers grow astonishingly by 9 million viewers. Most of this number came from the rural areas which were glued to television sets during the last season of the ISL. Although there are many fans who do watch the I-League regularly, however the number is minimal in comparison to the ISL. Watching I-league matches, one can the see the number of fans who actually show up to support their team. It is only a few places mainly in the Northeast where fans turn up to fill stadiums.
The popularity of the ISL should have also increased popularity of the I-league, but come January, most people do not even realise that the season is about to begin. Players let alone a few become household names mainly because of the ISL and its saddening when they don't get their due recognition when playing in the I-League. Maybe the glamour and glitz and lights mainly attracts most people to the ISL, but the quality of the I-league is equally as good and showcases the best of Indian talent. It is a blow to football in the country that clubs such as Salgaocar and Dempo have opted out of the I-league, however it is encouraging to see Minerva and Chennai City will be a part of the season. The AIFF have been more open and lenient in allowing teams to compete and it is refreshing to see that new teams will be competing. Aizawl FC who were facing relegation have also been cleared to take part in the season.
Questions of the top tier league in the country still arise and although the ISL barely runs for 3 months, the amount of work that goes into ensuring that the league is successfully every year is astonishing. All the restructuring the AIFF has done in the past year is yet to show any difference and we will just have to wait and see if it does help football in the country move forward. No doubt last year was a great year for Indian Football especially in terms of rankings but India does need a more clear and concise plan. Other countries such as China are doing plenty to ensure that by 2050 they will have a team capable to winning the World Cup. The money that China is spending to bring in players such as Tevez and Oscar is astonishing and India will have to do alot more to attract talent such as the mentioned.
In the last few years, it has been evident that quality of the players and also their fitness has improved which has proved for better and more entertaining matches. Aizawl FC and Shillong Lajong FC are the only two teams from the Northeast region to take part in the I-league season and it was a little disheartening to see no other team from the region win the bid into the I-league. Aizawl who made their debut last season will hope to perform better this year and climb up a few spots, while Lajong who have been around the I-League for a while now have failed to make it anywhere near the top, with their best showing in 2014 and 2016 where they finished 6th both times. Here's hoping that this season they will be able to make a greater impact on the table. There are many new young faces who will be debuting this season which shows the increasing importance put on youth development which will only benefit the country in the long run.
Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan go in as favourites before the start of the tournament and both teams have also impressed in the AFC Cup with Bengaluru FC being the first team from India to make it to the finals last year. Hopefully fans will also see some stellar displays from the Indian teams this year.
With just two days to go to the first match, hopefully the fans that tuned in to watch ISL matches will also tune in to watch the I-League ones. The importance of the I-league should not be lost as it is as important as any other league. This is the league where we see our Indian players shine and although there are no glamorous elements added to it, it is all about football which at the end of the day is all football fans want to see- pure entertaining football.
–By Jessica Passah for TNT- The Northeast Today