The I-League second division is starting in a few weeks and the hype surrounding the event is immense.
Indian Football has had a long wait.
Since March 15, no footballing activity has taken place in India. The Indian Super League final was played behind closed doors, with ATK emerging as champions, and the I-League was saved from a complicated situation as Mohun Bagan took an unassailable lead after defeating Aizawl FC and pocketing the league trophy.
Almost six months later, the fans have been starved of football in the country. European Football did provide fans with some much needed entertainment, but they couldn’t witness live Indian football. And the wait is finally over.
The I-League second division started in January with 17 teams, including 8 reserve teams of ISL clubs and 1 reserve team of Punjab FC. However, the I-League second division was interrupted by the pandemic and it was decided that the top six non-reserve teams will be asked to battle it out against each other for promotion. ARA, Bengaluru United, Mohammedan Sporting, FC Kerala, Garhwal and Bhawanipore were pitted to play against each other in this short league but FC Kerala withdrew with reports of financial constraints. Thus, it is now reduced to a five-club affair.
The I-League second division is probably the first national level sports tournament to take place in India. Cricket’s Indian Premier League is going to be conducted in the UAE which makes things even more interesting. How will the AIFF organize the I-League second division amidst such pressure?
On 14th August, the AIFF officially announced Kolkata as the venue for the I-League second division qualifiers and the I-League 2020/21. Kolkata doesn’t have a dearth of football ground, and conducting the league there could be considered a good decision. A source told IFTWC that four stadiums are shortlisted as of now- Sailen Manna Stadium in Howrah, Barasat Stadium, Kalyani Stadium and Kishore Bharati Stadium. The Rabindra Sarovar Stadium could be added to the list as well.
The source added that twelve training grounds have been shortlisted as of now for the five clubs to practice.
The coronavirus hasn’t showed signs of stopping in India, and West Bengal is no different. Almost 2 lakh cases have been recorded in West Bengal, with Kolkata having close to 43k cases. Keeping up with the testing trend all over the world, all the players and staff involved in the I-League second division will be tested every week.
The bio-bubble will be of high importance as minimum travel will be ensured for safety purposes. All the teams have been asked to report by 28th September and will be accommodated in The Hyatt Regency in Kolkata. It comes off as a pleasant surprise to see the players and staff being accommodated in one of the best lodging places in the city. Our source told IFTWC, “The AIFF has received a grant, either from FIFA or the AFC. It seems like the Federation isn’t leaving any stones unturned.”
The league is touted to begin by the first or second week of October. The word is that AIFF wants to finish it off before Durga Puja begins, that is 22nd October. The tournament won’t run for long, and will be wrapped up in 10-12 days.
The league organizers say that efforts are going on to telecast or stream the matches for the fans. Given the immense hype around the qualifiers this year, fans deserve to see live action of the five teams. With Mohammedan Sporting bringing in players like Willis Plaza, who is a proven goalscorer in their team, and Bengaluru United also being shrewd in their signings, it will be very interesting to watch the matches.
While Mohammedan Sporting would want to return to top level football again, clubs like ARA and Garhwal would take football to fresher geographic locations of India.
This year’s I-League second division might just be the most engaging and interesting one in its short history.