New Delhi: For the first time since its inception in 1996, the I-League (formerly known as the National Football League) will not be the top-tier competition for Indian football. Following a proposal presented by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) on domestic structural reforms in India, it was decided that Indian Super League (ISL) will replace the I-League as top-tier competition in the country. It was further decided by the authorities that the ISL champion would be entitled to a play-off place in the AFC Champions League and the I-League winners would clinch a place in the AFC Cup group stages.
While it came as a major setback for the I-League, Indian football team head coach Igor Stimac made it clear that the competition is just as important as the ISL. At the launch of the 2019/20 season of the I-League in New Delhi, Stimac also said that he will be watching the games quite carefully for Indian talents.
“I’m here to show that the I-League is as important as the ISL (Indian Super League). 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 candidate for the Indian team,” Stimac told reporters at the event.
The last couple of matches were quite disappointing for the national team as they were held by Afghanistan and a loss against Oman spelt the end of their FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign. The major problem for India in the ongoing campaign has been their goal-scoring form and with just three goals from five matches, the forward line has been quite disappointing.
When asked about the issue, Stimac said that there is a clear lack of quality strikers in the Indian domestic structure at the moment and the absence of Indian strikers in the majority of the clubs does not help matters when it comes to creating a viable talent pool for the Indian football team.
“Can you mention any player holding an Indian passport playing in any club and scoring goals? Why are you expecting that we are going to score goals in the international level when we don’t have a single striker playing in the domestic league and scoring goals. I don’t work with the players on a daily basis, I work with them for only five days before the game and that is it. But the important thing is we are creating chances. The team does not fear any opposition team,” he explained.
New season, same confidence
Last season, the I-League title race was decided on the final day of the campaign with Chennai City FC narrowly edging past East Bengal to claim their maiden crown. Pedro Manzi, who scored an impressive 21 goals in 18 matches, played a major role in guiding his team to the title and he believes that they can win the title once again because of their philosophy under coach Akbar Nawas.
“We will continue to play in the same philosophy as last season. We are a very strong team and although the other teams are good, we are working very hard to win the title once again,” Manzi told Hindustan Times.