The I-League kicks off on Saturday, and it does so with the least oomph it has had in its history. A drawn-out battle with the ISL for supremacy was lost last season (officially), the two Kolkata giants are gone, as are many of the best players from 2020. Most of the matches will continue to be held at ungodly hours (2 PM -- is this a school lunch break?). In the 25-year history of the competition (incl. the NFL years), it has never been easier to be pessimistic, to question the league's importance, to dismiss it at first glance.
That would be wrong.
Sure, the preeminence of the ISL has now been officially -- the AFC Champions League spot -- and unofficially -- say hello to (ATK) Mohun Bagan and (SC) East Bengal -- sanctioned, but that does not mean it can survive in a silo. Without a firm foundation, the glamour at the top means nothing. Which is where the I-League comes in.
Now that the existential crisis of 'who are we?' has been, rather brutally, solved for them, they can focus on what it is they do best -- develop football in India. It was the NFL, and then the I-League, that helped expand the footballing base of the nation, that provided the spotlight for teams that would previously have been buried under the weight of Kolkata and Goa (the former more than the latter).
The recent successes of teams like Aizawl, Chennai City, Gokulam Kerala and Real Kashmir speak to the continued importance of that fact. These are teams that have organic fanbases, driven by the simple attribute of parochialism -- when more players from your hometown/state play for your hometown/state team, it just becomes easier to back them.
This is also where India's new top division not-existing-in-a-silo bit comes in. Take ISL 2020-21, for instance. NorthEast United's young Indian spine has been bought from the I-League - Apuia (Lalengmawia) is from Indian Arrows, Rochharzela from Aizawl, VP Suhair, Britto PM and Ashutosh Mehta from Mohun Bagan. Hyderabad FC's two sensational full backs - Ashish Rai and Akash Mishra are both graduates of Indian Arrows.
But that's just this season.
Almost every Indian currently playing in India's new top division cut their teeth in the I-League. From Sunil Chhetri (MB, JCT, EB, Dempo, Churchill Brothers, and indeed BFC) to Halicharan Narzary (Pailan Arrows, Dempo, DSK), from Pritam Kotal (Pailan Arrows, MB) to Brandon Fernandes (Sporting Goa, Churchill), from Rehenesh TP (ONGC, Shillong Lajong, East Bengal) to Rowllin Borges (Sporting Goa) - the I-League has been the starting point for footballers across the league. Even in the ISL era, the I-League continues to be the cradle.
Financially, though, this season will be a slog. How the I-League clubs respond to this will be a test of their character. For a while now, they have been resigned to their fate -- as was evidenced when ESPN spoke to four league CEOs/owners a few months ago -- and they are preparing for the new normal.
The loss of the Maidan big boys means commercials will take a hit overall, and so will broadcast numbers. The AIFF will not be providing its annual subsidy (of INR 45 lakhs), but will be making up for that by footing the travel and accommodation expenses in Kolkata. Expenses will also be kept in check due to the reduction of foreigners in the squad (only three foreigners + one AFC-region foreigner per XI).
Clubs will have to work on their feet to keep revenues up -- most will lean on their football crazy owners (Gokulam Gopalan and Churchill Alemao to name but two), others will look to attract investment from outside (Chennai City are in talks for more stake sales after FC Basel bought 26% in 2019), and some will be dependent on member contributions (Mohammedan Sporting).
The one common factor, though, will remain transfers.
A good transfer window, in terms of player sales to ISL clubs, could spell the difference between red and black on the financial statements. And for a healthy transfer window, a successful league is mandatory. As cynical as it sounds, it's in their best commercial interests to play well simply to attract the deeper pockets. Their survival could well be dependent on it.
Meanwhile, for the clubs themselves, the consolation remains that AFC will be providing the winner of the league, a direct entry spot in the AFC Cup group stages. That it went to Mohun Bagan, who are now in the ISL, which means that no one in the league will see AFC action, is a rather cruel quirk of fate that the league is now becoming accustomed to.
In an expansive press conference ahead of the start of the league, Kushal Das and Sunandho Dhar, AIFF General Secretary and Leagues CEO respectively, strove to underline the importance of the league.
"The Hero I-League will never lose its relevance. We are on a right track to structure Indian football and the Hero I-League has given a platform to a lot of young Indian talent," said Das. That structure, that roadmap remains the same as announced -- promotion to the ISL will start with the winners of the 2023-24 I-League. Until then, survival is key.
"The Hero I-League has a nationwide impact on football in India. There are clubs from different parts of the nation and that gives us a unique opportunity for young talent in that area a chance to aspire. It gives them a platform to showcase talent," said Dhar. For the neutral viewer this remains its most compelling USP -- you want to watch the emergence of exciting, new Indian talent? Switch on the I-League.
While their statements have all the hallmarks of carefully worded PR, there is an essential truth to them. Second division, or not, the I-League matters. For Indian football, for the players, for the fans, for the ecosystem.
This season will pose the toughest question to the I-League's existence, its importance, relevance, and success. The answer is critical. For if Indian football is to prosper, so must its new second division.