A league that takes football far and wide

NEW DELHI: It’s a new season, and the I-League comes with three clubs that will play the league for the first time ever, together with one club that return to the league after a gap of four seasons.

Shillong Lajong FC, who have entertained Indian Football fans in the past, are now back once again, having won the Second Division League last season, and will be joined by Delhi Football Club, who finished behind them in the third tier of Indian Football. Two other debutants are corporate entries into the league as they look to spread the game across newer territories – Inter Kashi from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, and Namdhari Sports Academy in Sri Bhaini Sahib, Punjab.

Inter Kashi are one of the new clubs that have caused some interest among Indian Football fans with a host of top signings, as they look to make a strong side that can churn out some good performances. Defender Peter Hartley, a product of the famous Sunderland Academy in England, who has been recruited by Inter Kashi this season, is no stranger to Indian Football. The 35-year-old had played a crucial role in Jamshedpur FC’s Indian Super League winning campaign in 2020 and will now be looking to take on the challenge of helping a new club grow and prosper in the I-League.

“I’ve watched the league before, and I think it’s a very good competition with some really strong teams that could potentially cause problems for bigger teams in the ISL too,” said Hartley. “I think Inter Kashi have created an environment that could give us an opportunity to do something similar, to create history. I’m very excited about this season.”

The I-League is set to be played across 10 venues so far this season, much like every year, it takes up the burden of spreading the message of football far and wide across the subcontinent. Be the biting cold of Srinagar, Shillong, or Aizawl, or the sweltering heat of Kozhikode or Goa, the I-League provides a rather wide range of conditions for the players to play and adapt to.

The big cities aside, I-League is also known for venturing deep into unknown territories where football hasn’t made much inroads yet. Places like Varanasi, Lucknow or Bhaini Sahib were never prominent on the Indian football map, but the scenario has changed this season. Bhaini Sahib, around 70 kilometres from Ludhiana, will play host to two I-League teams – Namdhari Football Club and Delhi FC.

Goalkeeper Tenzin Samdup, a product of the Bengaluru FC academy, has been a journeyman in the past few years and feels that the addition of the Namdhari Football Stadium in Sri Bhaini Sahib to the I-League really shows how diverse it can be.

“This league tests you, and the fact that we are going to such a wide range of venues across India to play really takes a lot of character,” said Samdup, who admitted it was his search for more game time that led him to Namdhari.

“It’s a very interesting project that this club has taken up. They have some excellent facilities, and the people working around the team are an extremely dedicated bunch,” said Samdup. “As venues go, Sri Bhaini Sahib is probably different from all other venues in the I-League. It is more like a bigger village with great football facilities. I believe that as a footballer, your experience should not just be about big cities and hotels but also in places like this, where you can concentrate on your game and introspect about yourself.

“Being so close to the Namdharis over the last month and a half, I’ve learned that they never go down without putting up a courageous fight, and I’ve seen that attitude grow in many players during our camp here, even those like me, who are not from Punjab,” he said.

While the four new entrants into the league look to find their footing, the traditional heavyweights like Gokulam Kerala, Sreenidi Deccan, and Mohammedan Sporting are all set for the big jostle that would ultimately lead to promotion to the Indian Super League for one team.

The Malabarians, two-time champions, have made their intent clear with signings like Barcelona Academy product Nili Perdomo, and Tajikistan international Komron Tursunov to bolster the attack, while experienced heads like Salam Ranajan Singh and former Indian international Anas Edathodika will strengthen the back line.

Sreenidi Deccan have roped in midfielder Ibrahim Sissoko of Côte d’Ivoire, who has experience playing in Germany, Spain and Portugal, a signing that is expected to bridge their strong defensive and attacking units.

Mohammedan Sporting, on the other hand, have brought in Honduras international Eddie Hernandez to strengthen their attack. However, the presence of local talent David Lalhlansanga could also prove to be an exciting prospect. The 21-year-old forward shone for the Black and White Brigade in the Durand Cup this season, ending as the joint highest scorer of the tournament with six goals to his name. It is players like these that capture the imagination of Indian Football fans.

Also Read: From Kashmir to Kerala: I-League 2023-24 a journey of footballing discovery begins tomorrow

Also Read: Keep your Olympic dream burning, Dennerby tells his girls despite Japan jolt

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