In a country where cricket is regarded as no less than a religion, India has been biased towards the gentleman's game over the years. While cricket continues to hog the limelight, other sports including football remain on the sidelines with comparatively lower fanfare. But, the times are changing and the gap, that was once feared irreversible, has reduced considerably.
With a keen interest from the younger generation, football as a sport has surely broken new ground in the country. The football contests are short, crisp and probably more exciting than the cricketing contests we've been used to watching with our parents. However, despite an increasing interest in football, people in this part of the world appear to be more interested in foreign leagues like the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga.
Every now and then, one can find themselves in a brief conversation about India's lack of producing a well-equipped football unit - one that can help the country qualify for the coveted FIFA World Cup. But, the conversation generally ends as soon as the players return to the pitch after half-time during a Premier League clash over the weekend.
While the love for the sport is a great motivator to drive its popularity in any country, for a nation to truly make a mark on the ever-competitive world stage, its domestic leagues need support to nurture young talents so as to turn them into future stars - something that has eluded I-League over the years.
It was in 1996 that India began its first domestic league known as the National Football League, rechristened as I-League in 2007. But, despite being around for almost 23 years, the country's premier football league is still an alien in India.
If the lack of fanfare and viewership marred its popularity, I-League was dealt with a major blow after the Kuala Lumpur-based Asian Football Confederation (AFC), along with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), elevated the cash-rich Indian Super League (ISL) to the status of India's premier league earlier this October.
From celebrity owners, prominent foreign coaches and players to a huge influx of money from IMG-Reliance, the ISL, in its brief existence, managed to achieve what I-League couldn't in years. Since then, I-League has played a second fiddle to the ISL with bare minimum viewership and lack of funds.
But, despite lack of commercial interests and hosting games in half-empty stadiums, the I-League isn't deterred to serve its all-important purpose - nurturing young talents and providing the much-needed arsenal to ensure Indian football continues to grow in its bid to secure World Cup qualification. And, that's what the country's premier league aims for in its upcoming 13th season.
Kick-starting on November 30, with Mohun Bagan FC taking on Aizawl FC in Mizoram, the 13th edition of the I-League will feature 11 teams, with the induction of TRAU FC, winners of the Hero Second division last season. In a first, fans from across the country, this season, will witness two local derbies - the legendary Kolkata derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, and the Imphal derby featuring Neroca FC and TRAU FC.
For years, we've speculated over the quality of football in Indian domestic leagues and how it's still way behind other competitive leagues across the globe. So, is there anything different on offer from I-League this season? Well, the I-League superstars have spilled the beans.
"Every year the I-League is getting tougher. Each year comparatively we have so much fight. We have the southern derby between Gokulam Kerala FC and Chennai City FC. It makes competition very tough, we have slowly shifted from the Nigerians to the Spaniards. So, we are going more towards the European style of football and most of the teams now offer the same. So, we can certainly see a difference in the style of play," Ajith Kumar, Chennai City FC defender, told MensXP.
Peter Lalduhawma, Aizawl FC midfielder, feels that the evening starts to the games this season will improve the attendance in the stadiums. "I think the timings of the matches is one major different thing. Most of the fans go to work which reduces the audience in the stadiums and with 7:00 pm matches will help us attract more fans. We have already seen it in the Mizoram premier league - the fans are much more in the night than the afternoon," he told MensXP.
"AIFF is putting in their efforts to improve the season every year. In the last five years we have had five different winners. The teams are better and tougher and so is the league. I believe this year the football itself will attract the fans," he added.
On being asked about I-League's role in grooming and nurturing young talents, Jonathan Lalrawngbawla, Aizawl FC striker, said, "Aizawl FC has always concentrated on the youth and we already have U13, U15, U16, U17 and U19 teams. So, this coming I-League will also be very interesting for us as there are many young talented players in the team. So, it will be a new experience for the team".
“Over the years the Hero I-League has been scouting and providing a platform for future stars of Indian Football. In the 13th edition this year we have 11 teams from eight states and one Union Territory fighting for the top honours. I wish luck to all the participating teams,” Kushal Das, AIFF General Secretary, said ahead of the new I-League season.
Praful Patel, AIFF President, also stressed on the importance of the I-League and said, “We are very happy to welcome TRAU FC to the 13th edition of the Hero I-League. The pan India presence has been the unique feature of the league in the last few editions, and is a true testimony to the manner it has played a critical role in spreading the game to all corners of the country”.
The I-League might not be able to compete with the cash-rich ISL, but if last season was anything to go by, the country's oldest professional competition was far better than its counterpart, thriving on its own strength, rather than relying on the grossly artificial publicity overdrive.
Unperturbed by their demotion as country's premier league, I-League, with its new season, seems hell-bent on proving Indian football is not just about the money.
After all, the beautiful game is all about courage, inspiration and steely nerves, not a vulgar display of breaking the bank.