Kolkata: It's no secret that I-League is a poor second cousin of the cash-rich Indian Super League but Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri urges AIFF to have a "Pan-Indian touch" by having clubs ranging from Jammu and Kashmir to Andaman & Nicobar islands for the tourney.
"I would eventually want to see I-League evolve into a pan India tournament. You want one league for the whole nation maybe with more than 17 teams catering to about every state," the leading Indian goal scorer told PTI in an exclusive interview ahead of the Hero I-League launch ceremony in Kolkata.
"I would love to see a team from Jammu and Kashmir, Andaman, Kerala, Chennai, make it a pan-India presence," the highest international goal-scorer for India said.
Quite predictably, he refused to comment on whether the much talked about merger of ISL and I-league is possible or not.
"ISL and I-League are two two different tournaments. I-League is improving every year with a lot of Indian talents and a good mix of foreign players. It's very competitive."
Last year, the I-League was played among 11 teams and out of those, three clubs -- Pune FC, Bharat FC and Royal Wahingdoh -- have pulled out and while one (Dempo) has been relegated.
With new entrants DSK-Shivajians and Aizawl FC the I-League 2015-16 would be competed among just nine clubs.
Citing example of the Shillong Lajong FC, the iconic footballer said the I-League clubs should look at the northeast club's model.
"We've to promote I-League. It's important for all the clubs to promote their own clubs. Look at Lajong, they do really well in getting the crowd into the stadium.
"At Bengaluru FC, we improve our fan base every year. There's also no problem of getting crowd for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal...
"It's only in Goa where we face a problem and it depends on the club and AIFF to evolve a marketing strategy for the Goan teams."
The Bengaluru FC captain said they're looking forward to the I-League where they finished runners-up last season and emerged champions as debutants in 2013-14.
"We've had a great pre-season (with SAFF Cup triumph and ISL exposure) that will give us a great platform. We have been playing for last three months. I hope everyone is fresh."
Speaking highly of his team who have eight new faces including three youngsters from India U-19 squad, he said: "We've the likes of Alwyn George, Kim Song Yong, Len Doungel, Amrinder Singh and three youngsters -- Daniel (Lalhlimpuia), Malsawmzuala from Mizoram and Nishu (Kumar) from Uttarakhand -- who are very talented."
"All the teams are very strong. I'm looking forward to a tough season ahead," the Blues captain said.
Bengaluru FC will take on Salgaocar FC at the Tilak Maidan, in Goa January 9 as the defending champions Mohun Bagan will kick off the tournament against debutants Aizawl FC here.
The Federation Cup champions will begin their AFC Cup campaign with an away trip to Laos.
Fresh from winning the SAFF Cup, the ace striker said India were moving in the right direction and it's about time that their 166th ranking in FIFA will improve.
"If every two months, you keep on asking about rankings it won't change much. We're improving slowly. It takes time... It's about improving as a whole."
"It's not the biggest of tournaments but winning it seven times means we've been a dominant force," he said about their SAFF Cup triumph.
Reflecting on the last season's performance where they lost five of six 2018 WC qualifiers, Chhetri said: "In terms of results, it has not been great outing but in terms of performances we've had a mixed bag experience.
"We played really well against Oman and Iran at home. After the defeat to Guam, we looked really sharp at home against Guam. Down to 10 players and winning convincingly is a testimony to the fact that the Indian football is moving in the right direction. We need International exposure and have to keep playing friendlies to improve rankings."
On India's Under-17 World Cup preparation, the Indian football icon said: "There's still one year left and we've to ensure that the players are given good coaching and adequate match training, exposure in International friendlies. We have to give them everything whatever the need be," he concluded.