Preview: Hero I-league Qualifiers
The remodeled I-league 2nd division is all set to kick off next week in Kolkata under restrictions to determine which team is promoted to the I-league next season. The tournament signifies the restart of high-level professional football in the country for the first time since lockdown. The AIFF decided to proceed with the tournament without the reserve teams of ISL clubs that are ineligible for promotion as per the rules. That left eight teams out of which FC Kerala, Rajasthan FC, and Lonestar Kashmir pulled out citing financial and safety reasons.
Thus, five teams - Garhwal FC, Mohammedan Sporting, Bengaluru United, Bhawanipore FC, and ARA FC - will battle it out in a mini-competition that will follow a round-robin format. The tournament will be independent of the results before lockdown and the winner of this mini-league will get promoted. The matches will be played in the Salt Lake and Kalyani Stadiums in Kolkata with the league finishing on 19th October.
The opening match will see local team Bhawanipore FC face Bengaluru United. Bhawanipore was third in Group C after playing five matches before the lockdown, losing only to Mohammedan Sporting. The team is managed by former Mohun Bagan coach Sankarlal Chakraborty who is confident that his side can take advantage of this qualifying format and go toe-to-toe with bigger clubs.
Their opponents from Karnataka were second in Group C, level on points with ARA who were top. Bengaluru United was formed only two years ago in 2018 but has made rapid progress through the Indian football pyramid. With former India international Gourmangi Singh among their coaching staff, the team will be a force to be reckoned with in Kolkata. They had some impressive performances before the lockdown and will be hoping to pick up where they left off.
The second match on the opening day will see Garhwal FC play the other local club Mohammedan Sporting. Before the pandemic, Garhwal was top of Group A and in a strong position to qualify for the final round. The team from the capital has a good mix of young local talent and some experienced foreign players. Champions of Delhi in 2019 after a six-year drought, Garhwal are the underdogs of the qualifying tournament. The club does not have the financial strength of some of its rivals but its assets are coach Vikas Rawat and the endless line of talented players that their partner Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools produces.
Like their opponents, Mohammedan was also top of their group having won four out of six matches before COVID brought a halt to the tournament. The legacy club has made some big signings like Wilis Plaza and Eze Kingsley to ensure that they get back into the I-league where they perhaps feel they belong. Mohammedan is also making moves off the field with the club set to be taken over by a UK-based firm. Fans will hope that new coach Yan Law can lead the squad back to the I-league after six years in the second tier.
ARA FC will begin their campaign on the 11th against Mohammedan Sporting. This is just ARA’s second season in the 2nd division and the club has already established itself as a strong promotion contender. The club will no doubt miss its beautiful home ground The Arena in Ahmedabad but they had a good record on the road in the preliminary stages. ARA is bidding to become the first club to play in the I-league and this mini-tournament represents a very good opportunity to make history.
Qualifying for the I-league is more enticing than ever with a proper roadmap now in place by the AIFF. Within a couple of seasons, the I-league will be open to promotion to the ISL, and the rewards that go with it. The I-league is a highly volatile league. The relatively fewer number of matches leaves it open to underdog winners as shown by Minerva Punjab and Aizawl FC in recent years. The five clubs in the mini-tournament will no doubt be dreaming of achieving something similar when they begin their journey come Thursday.
Stay tuned and subscribe for the October issue of Stadium Echo which will feature a comprehensive review of the qualifying tournament.