After another demanding season of the I-League, Bengaluru FC (BFC) were deservedly crowned champions while Aizawl FC were relegated back to division two. Mohun Bagan went from clear front-runners to runners up in a matter of days. East Bengal remained in character by fading away in the home stretch. The two Goan clubs, Sporting Club de Goa and Salgaocar, experienced contrasting fortunes. Debutants DSK Shivajians failed to find their feet, while Mumbai FC and Shillong Lajong survived relegation by the skin of their teeth.
In little over three months, the 2016 I-League season threw up some interesting talking points. Here’s a look at some of them.
Bagan’s costly gamble
To give themselves some breathing space between AFC Cup matches, Mohun Bagan chose to reschedule their trip to Aizawl to a later date which coincided with the international break. With five key players away on national duty, the previously unbeaten Mariners lost 1-2, which in turn triggered a decline in form that allowed the Blues to seize the initiative and win the league.
Coupled with Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen’s four-game ban (reduced from eight games on appeal), the defeat in Mizoram proved to be decisive in the outcome of the title race. It’s a pity that the Mariners’ preference for the AFC Cup over the I-League backfired on them, because Indian clubs have had a tendency to focus more on the domestic competition than the continental one. This could have a lasting effect.
Under-22 rule isn’t working
It is time to either scrap or reform the Under-22 rule, which mandates the inclusion of an Indian player younger than 22 years of age in the starting XI. AIFF’s motive behind implementing the rule was noble but, with stakes so high in every match in a short league, it is being widely abused by coaches – who have made it a habit of substituting their young players off the field only few minutes into matches. This is doing more damage than good to a player’s morale.
Of the nine I-League clubs, only Bengaluru FC and the two Northeastern clubs Aizawl FC and Shillong Lajong FC have not broken the rule this season (and the latter two don’t really need to since their line-ups are often full of U-22 players by default). Most notably, in the first Kolkata derby of the season, Sen chose to replace young Azharuddin Mallick with Balwant Singh in only the 12th minute.India’s topmost division has become a league of embarrassing first-half substitutions.
Diminishing respect among coaches
Level of mutual respect between I-League coaches seems to be at an all-time low. Bengaluru’s ‘Coach of the Season’ Ashley Westwood, known to be a straight shooter, was unsurprisingly in the thick of things. Early on in the season, the Englishman claimed that his Bagan counterpart, Sen, was simply a “bad coach”. Later, he was also involved in a touchline flare-up with East Bengal’s now former coach Biswajit Bhattacharya. The Kolkata club filed an official complaint to the AIFF.
Finally, Westwood twice took pot-shots at coach Khalid Jamil of Mumbai FC. Post a 0-2 defeat in Mumbai, irked by the home team’s aggressive methods, he said that the opposition were actually a “bad team”. Later in the season, he also pointed out that Mumbai had “no chance of winning the league” and invited journalists to draw conclusions on Jamil’s coaching pedigree.
It’s not just Westwood, though. When Jahar Das achieved his first win as coach of Aizawl after taking over reigns from Spaniard Manuel Retamero, he immediately suggested that his predecessor’s naïvely attacking brand of football was the reason behind the club’s poor results. Santosh Kashyap, on the other hand, came in at Salgaocar and straightaway discredited his predecessor Malcolm Thompson’s work: “This team has no idea of passing. I need to teach them how to pass”.
Thoughts with Aizawl FC
A corporate-backed club making its debut directly in India’s topmost tier and being immune from relegation remains a controversial, though perhaps necessary, ruling by the AIFF to attract participation. Newly formed DSK Shivajians finished last in the league but could not be relegated. As a result, tiny Aizawl FC, who finished eighth, suffered and dropped back down to the second division.
In contrast to DSK, who were atrocious to watch for the majority of the season, the boys from Mizoram, with its young and fearless brigade of Indian players, played a refreshingly flamboyant brand of football that was a treat to the eye.
The Pune-based club had far superior infrastructure and facilities (the best in the country) at its disposal. It had a renowned coach in Derrick Pereira. And it had a whole host of seasoned players in the squad. Yet, it is DSK, and not Aizawl, who are afforded the luxury of a second chance.
India’s striking worries
Jeje Lalkheplua (Mohun Bagan), Sunil Chhetri (Bengaluru) and Sushil Kumar Singh (Mumbai) were the top Indian goalscorers this season. But they scored only five goals each, which is less than half the number scored by Ranti Martins (12 goals), Darryl Duffy (11) or Cornell Glen (11) at the top of the scoring charts.
Chhetri played in a wide, often functional, role with Korean forward Kim-Song Yong being BFC’s primary frontman. Jeje, meanwhile, played second fiddle to Glen. Both Chhetri and Jeje are the national team’s first-choice forwards. On the other hand, Sushil is aged 34 and doesn’t offer much hope. Others, such as CK Vineeth and Seminlen Doungel at Bengaluru and Sumeet Passi at Sporting Goa impressed in brief appearances. But there appears to be a dearth of upcoming Indian forwards. Is the pipeline drying up?
Player safety still an issue
While the rest of the world has taken extra caution towards player safety, India continues to turn a blind eye to it. Head injuries in the game have been a major source of worry and debate in recent years. England’s Premier League, for instance, introduced a firm ruling two years back that a player should be taken off the pitch even if there is only a suspicion of concussion. However, events in India, still indicate a negligent attitude towards safety of players.
When DSK travelled to Goa to face Sporting, goalkeeper Subrata Pal rescued the visitors with a heroic performance. But late in the game, he appeared to be in serious trouble after a heavy collision with opposition striker Odafa Okolie. Pal was in great discomfort but continued on playing.
He later admitted: “I was very worried when it happened. I cannot remember anything from the moment.” It was clear that the ‘keeper should’ve been substituted at the time. Instead, Pal remained on the field and even went on to play in DSK’s next match, which was five days later. As per medical advice, a player suffering from concussion shouldn’t be allowed to play for at least six days.
One of the biggest takeaways from this season of the I-League has been the emergence of travelling away supporters – a concept largely alien to the Indian sporting community. These are fans who traverse long distances (a particularly tedious task in India) and spend from their own pockets to support their beloved teams. Across the globe, the traveling contingent of any football club is recognised as the most vocal and passionate group of supporters. In the I-League, it was no different.
BFC’s now-famous fan group ‘West Block Blues’, who followed the team to Goa, Mumbai and Siliguri, led from the front as their banners and chants overshadowed the dwindling home crowds. One female BFC supporter even travelled all the way to Shillong to back her team and was duly celebrated by the club on social media. Bagan supporters too made their presence felt in Goa for the Kolkata club’s double header, while Mumbai FC’s Yellow Brigade were in fine voice during a trip to Pune. They’ve all set a fine benchmark for the future.