East Bengal starts favourite, Churchill will find an encore difficult

The latest edition of the I-League, set to kick off on Saturday, doesn’t offer the promise of something new. It threatens to be as lacklustre as the previous six forays.

Known as the National League for the first 11 years of its life, Indian football’s top division remains largely Kolkata and Goa-centric and without a team from northern India.

The All-India Football Federation (AIFF) has failed to adhere to the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) diktat to professionalise football and managed to rope in Airtel as the title sponsor only a day prior to the start.

Last season’s champion, Churchill Brothers, continues to wait for a big portion of its Rs. 70 lakh prize kitty.

The disbandment of the federation’s development side, Pailan Arrows, and the last-minute withdrawal of new corporate entrant Mumbai Tigers add to the woes.

Also, for the first time there are no institutional sides participating this season.

The 13 participating clubs, which have again failed to fulfil the AFC’s club licensing criteria (apart from Pune FC), have been hit hard by the slowing down of the economy and the knock-on effect of the chit fund scam in Bengal.

United Sports Club, fourth last season, is yet to arrange for finances and started training only around three weeks ago, with players signing in despite not receiving any advance payment.

However, the financial gloom has not stopped the clubs from bringing in about 20 new foreign players, including Trinidad & Tobago World Cupper Cornell Glen (Shillong Lajong), Ireland under-21 international Billy Mehmet (Dempo), Australian international defender Simon Colosimo (Dempo) and Spaniard Arturo Navarro (Sporting Clube de Goa).

Navvaro, a product of Valencia’s youth academy, had made his senior team debut in the Copa del Ray in 2008.

With over 90 per cent of the football budget spent on player recruitment, little emphasis is being paid on youth and infrastructure development, keeping football in the country in a constant ad hoc stage.

Rigid stance

AIFF’s marketing partner IMG-Reliance’s rigid stance about its proposed three-month-long IPL-style league, early next year, has caused further trouble, with the clubs and IMG-R failing to come up with an agreeable solution on player sharing.

At least eight past and present senior National players and a clutch of youngsters are facing the prospect of missing out an entire season, creating worry lines for National coach Wim Koevermans.

The top two Kolkata teams, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, with a reported outlay of Rs. 14 crore each, will want to end the city’s nine-year-long title drought.

East Bengal, which has addressed the problems of its misfiring forward line, with the addition of James Moga and Ryuji Sueoka will start the favourite.

Bagan, still very Odafa Okolie-dependent, lacks the team game to offer the consistency needed for a marathon league structure.

Churchill Brothers, without the mastery of last season’s technical director Subhash Bhowmick and Brazilian playmaker Roberto Mendes Silva, will find it hard to do an encore.

Record five-time winner Dempo, under Australian coach Arthur Papas, and the well-organised Pune FC will fancy their chances.

No relegation worries

New entrant Bengaluru FC, coached by former Manchester United youth player Ashley Westwood, has no relegation worries (the corporate team is exempted from relegation for the first three years) and might end up as the season’s surprise package.

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