The I-League once again lived up to its reputation and delivered another action-packed season for Indian football fans.
For the third time on the trot, and the fourth time in the last five seasons, the champions were determined on the last day of the campaign, with Chennai City FC winning the coveted title this season.
The South Indian outfit beat last season’s champions Minerva Punjab 3-1 to win their maiden I-League title. Kolkata giants East Bengal once again faltered at crucial juncture of the championship race and had to be satisfied with a second-place finish.
Going into the final round of games, Chennai City needed to win to be crowned champions, irrespective of results elsewhere. However, East Bengal had to win their game against Gokulam Kerala and hope for Chennai City to drop points.
Although the Kolkata team did their part and won 2-1 in Kerala, Chennai City had the last laugh as they beat Minerva Punjab 2-1 to become the first team from Tamil Nadu to win the I-League. They ended on 43 points from 20 outings, just one ahead of East Bengal.
The Spanish contingent of Chennai City, comprising of Nauzet Santana, Roberto Eslava, Sandro Rodriguez, Nestor Gordillo and Pedro Manzi, was key to the club’s success. While Manzi ended the season as the league’s joint top goalscorer alongside Churchill Brothers striker Willis Plaza, with the duo netting 21 times each, Gordillo topped the assists chart as he set up nine goals for his teammates. Akbar Nawas’ team played some scintillating football for the majority of the campaign and were the deserved winners.
East Bengal, backed by new investors - Quess Corp Ltd, also had a strong Spanish connection, with former Real Madrid youth team coach Alejandro Menendez taking charge of the club ahead of the I-League season, while Borja Gomez, Toni Dovale and Jaime Santos were prominent figures on the pitch for the Red and Gold.
East Bengal were handed a transfer ban by the AIFF in September over anomalies in their bid to sign Sukhdev Singh from Minerva Punjab. As a result, East Bengal were unable to register any new player until January.
But, credit to Menendez as he took the harsh decision in his stride and kept his side in the hunt for the I-League till the last day of the season. Unfortunately, East Bengal failed to end their 16-year-long wait to be crowned the champions of India once again.
Real Kashmir FC had a dream debut in the I-League and were firmly in the title picture until the penultimate round. However, a 2-1 loss to fellow title contenders East Bengal dashed their hopes of lifting the trophy in their very first attempt.
Although the Snow Leopards failed to win the prized trophy, their performances impressed one and all. Among their notable results, David Robertson’s team managed to beat champions Chennai City twice, held East Bengal to a 1-1 draw in Kolkata, and edged out former champions Mohun Bagan 2-1 at the Salt Lake Stadium.
It was the first time a club from Jammu and Kashmir played in the I-League, and it’s safe to say that the club from the northern-most state of India gave a good account of themselves as they finished third with a game in hand.
Also, the visuals of Real Kashmir playing their home matches at the TRC Turf Ground in snow-clad conditions in winter was a sight to behold.
The season also had its fair share of controversies ranging from on-field to off-field issues. Refereeing was sub-standard as there were too many mistakes throughout the campaign involving legitimate goals being disallowed, wrong off-side decisions, and incorrect calls regarding red and yellow cards.
East Bengal full-back Lalram Chullova’s goal, which was wrongly not given despite the ball clearly crossing the line in the 2-2 draw against Aizawl, was a prime example of the poor refereeing standards in the league. In hindsight, if that goal stood, maybe East Bengal would have won the league.
On the other hand, the off-field tussle between Minerva Punjab and Real Kashmir also grabbed the headlines. In the aftermath of the Pulwama terror attack, Minerva Punjab refused to play Real Kashmir in Srinagar, owing to security concerns.
The home team were present for the game and demanded the three points after the defending champions didn’t turn up. But Minerva Punjab took the matter to the Delhi High Court, citing that their absence could not be branded a forfeiture as it was on security grounds. The All India Football Federation intervened and a re-match was scheduled, the date and venue of which are still not confirmed.
Returning to on-field incidents, the season ended on a bad note for East Bengal striker Jobby Justin, who was the top-scoring Indian in the league. The Keralite and Aizawl FC’s Kareem Omolaja was suspended for six games each by the AIFF for spitting at each other; they were also fined Rs 1 lakh each.
In a separate incident, Gokulam Kerala midfielder Guilherme Castro was suspended for a year and fined Rs 2 lakhs for spitting at a referee.
The future of the I-League is still unclear. There have been suggestions of merging the tournament with the cash-rich Indian Super League (ISL), while it has been also reported that the likes of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan could quit the league and opt to play in the ISL, which is sure to dull the craze surrounding the I-League.
But one thing is clear, despite its meagre resources, the I-League has almost always delivered and given the ISL a run for their money. The Indian football fans would be hoping the I-League returns with all its glory next season.
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