The Hero I-League kick-started its 12th edition with a lot of excitement and expectation during the opening week. This year is no different as all the eleven teams will lock horns to take the trophy home at the end of the season. But the massive attendance of fans across the country has made it clear that this year is going to be special.
Many believe that the growth of ISL has somehow overshadowed the presence of traditional I-League, which is definitely not the case. In my opinion, I-League has also transformed and evolved due to the emergence of ISL. We can witness a revolution in which two top draw leagues are continuously trying to raise the bar of Indian football. This is the moment that we, Indian fans were waiting for.
I-league has always been known for its culture which initiated the football fever in India. From Mohan Bagan to East Bengal FC and from Churchill Brothers to Aizawl Football Club, the local support has increased many folds. This was quite evident when clubs registered record attendance figures in the first round of I-League.
The Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium in Coimbatore saw 8,262 supporters cheering for the home side, which won convincingly over young Indian Arrow side by 4-1. Chennai City FC’s Pedro Manzi scored a hat-trick to the delight of home fans. The second game saw Neroca FC taking on East Bengal FC amidst 26,412 attendants at the Khuman Lampak Stadium, which turned into a sea of orange. The visitors won the match by 2-0 as the Mexican Enrique Esqueda scored a brace.
Gokulam Kerala FC saw the highest attendance ever at their home when 28,437 fans watched the home side playing against the almighty Mohan Bagan. Even after going through rehabilitation when the flood hit Kerala, it was encouraging to see so many people turn up for the opening fixture.
Both the sides shared a point each as the match ended in a 1-1 draw. Another goalless draw was played on Sunday when the defending champions Minerva Punjab faced Churchill Brothers FC with 8,591 people cheering from the stands.
First north-eastern derby of the season was played between Shillong Lajong FC and Aizawl FC in Meghalaya, featuring 14,697 fans. It was a dream debut for 19-year-old Naorem Mahesh Singh who scored twice and took the home side over the line.
Real Kashmir FC started their maiden I-League campaign with a victory over the defending champions Minerva Punjab. Gnohere Krizo’s late strike assured that the debutants bagged three crucial points. On the contrary, it has been quite a shaky start for the title holders who could only manage a single point in their two home games.
The emerging talents and beautiful football that is being played in I-league assure this season has a lot to offer. Only time will tell if the old horses like Mohan Bagan, East Bengal and Churchill Brothers can take up the cudgels or underdogs like Minerva Punjab, Real Kashmir and Indian Arrows are ready to take the league by storm.
We are only in the opening week of the league and have witnessed some mouth-watering ties. Initially, the benchmark was set by I-league and now the legacy is only growing. Shillong Lajong FC became the second team after Indian Arrows to not include any foreign player in their 30-man squad. This may be a gamble which will turn out to be beneficial for Indian football as local players will get more opportunity on the field.
From fans turning out in large numbers to debutants scoring braces in their maiden appearance and second division champions beating the defending champions on their own turf. It is surely beginning of an era, we are just fortunate enough to be a part of it.