NEW DELHI -- When he was a teenager honing his skills at the Tata Football Academy over a decade ago, East Bengal midfielder and former India international Lalrindika Ralte had a very simple ambition. While most of his batchmates were Mohun Bagan fans, Ralte preferred the red and gold jersey of their arch rivals.
"Even from a young age I always wanted to play for East Bengal. And the dream was always was to win an I-League title with them," remembers the 28-year-old from Mizoram. Ralte had a five-year stint with the club between 2012 and 2017, and returned as club captain in 2018-19. And while there have been multiple other titles -- Federation Cup, IFA shield and six consecutive Calcutta Football Leagues (CFL) -- the I-League has proved elusive. "Although we have come close, I've never won the I-League (East Bengal narrowly finished second to Chennai City last year). That's the biggest tournament," he says.
No longer the top tier
Perhaps that would have held true all those years back -- Ralte's wistful assessment of the I-League's significance seems diminished today. This year, for the first time since its inception in 1996 as the National Football League (NFL), the I-League will not be the top-tier competition for Indian football.
Losing the top division status to the Indian Super League (ISL) also means the I-League winners will no longer get a play-off place in the AFC Champions League. Its depleted value might be fathomed from the fact that 33 players who played in the I-League last season -- some of the league's best talent -- have been snapped up by the richer ISL clubs. None of the players in the current national squad are from the I-League either. I-League teams have to compete with tighter budgets than their wealthier ISL peers, and over the last two seasons at least, shoddier production values and bizarre kick-off times.
Despite these limitiations, some players continue to find value and merit in playing in the I-League. Chennai City striker Pedro Manzi is one of them. Manzi, who led Chennai to the title last season with his 21 goals, including three hat-tricks, might have been expected to try his luck in the greener pastures of the ISL.
"My agent received offers from ISL clubs like Chennaiyin FC and Hyderabad FC but I decided to stay in Chennai," he says. "One reason was that my contract is for two years with Chennai City and it's difficult to break it. But I also really wanted to stay with Chennai City because it's like a home. It's not just like I have teammates, or coaches or assistant coaches or a team owner. Everyone is like family here."
That thought is echoed by other players -- for Real Kashmir's Mason Robertson, who didn't even have a multiple-year contract binding him, the family link is a literal one. "I had a couple of offers as well but I decided I wanted to stay in Real Kashmir. They treat me with respect and that's my number one priority. I only have a one-year contract but I really don't want to leave the club," says Robertson, whose father and head coach David inspired the debutants to third place last season.
The increasing standards of the clubs
Any attachment with clubs wouldn't last very long in the absence of a basic standard of professionalism. While that was a major cause of heartburn in the past, better practises have crept into the industry.
"Kids these days don't even have any idea what things were like 12 years back. Those days, you weren't even sure if you were going to be paid on time," says defender Anwar Ali, who made the journey from ISL club Mumbai City to the I-League's Punjab FC. "It's different these days," says the 35-year-old, whose first NFL campaign came back in 2005.
"Back then there were essentially two clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, that were mostly professionally run. But over the years things have changed. You slowly lost the departmental teams. You got professional facilities and more foreigners that raised the quality of the league. The ISL made a difference also. I-League clubs had to at least match them with their training and recovery. So that improved as well," recalls Anwar.
The I-League's scheduling woes over the last season also seem to have been figured out for now. The fact that the league has a new broadcast partner in DSport -- matches were telecast on Star Sports last season -- and that floodlights are being installed in both Imphal's Khuman Lampak stadium and Aizawl's Rajiv Gandhi stadium are seen as signficant boosts as well. "It will give us a lot more flexibility in how we can broadcast matches. We will be able to host more matches in the weekend," says I-League CEO Sunando Dhar. "We can also schedule more matches in the evenings so we can get more local fans coming and watching in Imphal and Aizawl."
It's not just the facilities that have improved -- Anwar doesn't see much difference in the comparative quality of the two leagues. "In my first year with the ISL, I was thinking, how great it was that I was meeting these great coaches and playing alongside Alessandro Del Piero at Delhi [erstwhile ISL club Delhi Dynamos]," he says. "Everything looked great. I thought we will improve so much and there will be a huge difference in quality when I go and play the I League."
"But later that year when I went and played with Mohun Bagan, all those ideas disappeared. Because actually the level between the two leagues is the same. You can see the results in the pre-season matches and even in the Super Cup. Both leagues are equally matched."
Indian national team coach Igor Stimac appears to agree with Anwar. He hasn't picked an I-League player yet, but on Wednesday, he suggested that he would treat the league's players fairly. "I'm here to show that the I-League is as important as the ISL. I'm here to send the players who are participating in the I-League the message that all those who have an Indian passport are possible candidates for the Indian team," Stimac said.
While the quality of the game is roughly the same, it can be argued that in terms of playing conditions, the I-League can often be tougher than the ISL. "What the I-League really is, is a pan-Indian league," suggests Dhar. "One day you are playing in bitter cold and snow in Kashmir, and a few days later you are playing in 38 degrees (Celsius) humidity in Kerala," adds Manzi.
For all of Anwar's and Manzi's assertions on the challenge of the I-League, the lure of the ISL -- with its bigger pay packets-- is still evident. Ironically, this makes the I-League doubly significant. For while there is the prospect of higher salaries in the ISL, the best chance of getting noticed comes through performances in the I-League. "We had nine players from our side that went and joined the ISL," says Akash Mishra, 16, of the Indian Arrows. "The biggest player to get picked was Amarjit Kiyam [now with Jamshedpur FC] and he always told us that we won't get a place like the I-League to get playing time. So we had to make the most of that," he says.
That's the strategy of 18-year-old Peter Lalduhawma of Aizawl FC as well. Lalduhawma made his way through the age-group ranks at Aizawl football academy, and hopes to make the jump to the ISL soon enough. "One of my seniors in the ISL says that if I make a name for myself and make a regular place in the team, I will have a good chance to play in a better club in the ISL next season," he says.
While Lalduhawma aims to ply his trade in the ISL, he also admits to feeling pride in representing his home jersey in the I-League for the upcoming season. It's a feeling similar to the one his older state-mate with East Bengal also has.
"The I-League is special because there when I play in Kolkata, there is so much passion the fans have for the game and our club," says Ralte. "People were spending Rs 100-200-500 (between approx. USD 1.39 and 7) for a ticket. They were spending money on train tickets. They were saving their money from driving a rickshaw. If we lose, they wouldn't eat food. It felt strange that you have so much responsibility."
It's for those fans that Ralte wants to win the I-League trophy. "This year is the centenary celebrations of East Bengal," he says. "I've achieved almost everything I want in life but I still haven't won an I-League for East Bengal. I hope I can do it this time."
It's not as if he hasn't won the big prizes at all. In 2016 he was loaned to the ISL's ATK where he would go on to help his side with the title. For Ralte, that moment of triumph was not as special as it could have been.
"When we won the ISL, the owner was happy but there weren't that many fans of ATK," he remembers. "We had fans for a day and that was it! If we had won the I-League, fans wouldn't have forgotten for the next 15-20 years."
I-league 2019-20: Key fixtures
November 30 Gokulam Kerala v Neroca
November 30 Aizawl v Mohun Bagan
December 4 East Bengal v Real Kashmir
December 22 Mohun Bagan v East Bengal
December 26 Real Kashmir v Chennai City
January 25 Chennai City v East Bengal
March 9 Real Kashmir v East Bengal
March 15 East Bengal v Mohun Bagan
March 22 East Bengal v Chennai City
April 5 East Bengal v Neroca
April 5 Chennai City v Punjab