The Federation Cup starts today. This is a tournament that looks more likely to survive the ISL than the I-League. Yes, that is strange
The Federation Cup is back with the top eight teams from the league season, including relegated Aizawl. The Cup motto, ‘Where Pride Meets Passion’, is as ambiguous as the fate of the tournament was until the Asian Football Confederation stepped in and insisted that a 9-team league with 18 games each wasn’t enough.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) was told that each club would have to play at least 20 matches to be eligible to play in the Asian Champions League (ACL). The AIFF had “put it on hold” in 2015 — the official explanation being to improve the second division and under-19 system.
The irony then is that the Fed Cup seems more likely to survive the Indian Super League than the I-League. The AIFF is hoping to have the leagues merged by end of 2018. But AIFF general secretary Kushal Das will not use the word: “We are not viewing it as a merger of ISL and I-League. It is a review of Indian club football structure,” he had said. The domestic cup should then stay on, connecting the break in the footballing timeline. League winners Bengaluru will travel to Aizawl in Mizoram o n d ay o n e , whi l e Mohan Bagan play Salgaocar, East Bengal Shillong Lajong and Sporting Goa Mumbai FC over the next two days. (Lower-ranked teams travel in the second leg). Bengaluru and Bagan have to be considered the top contenders and can only play each other in the final. BFC’s frugal defence won them their first Fed Cup back when they were the new kids on the blockandfirst-timeI-Leaguechampions. Centre-back Curtis Osano was the man of the match in that final and his pairing with John Johnson has been excellent this season. BFC, though, do have problems. Coach Ashley Westwood’s contract is due to end in a month’s time and an extension has not been announced. “To be honest, I would love to stay but they have offered me a wagedrop,”he had said after winning the league.
Rivals Bagan had a phenomenal start to the season, going unbeaten in the first 11 games. The first loss brought a drop in form and loss of points that ended their campaign prematurely. The Fed Cup could make up for it a bit.
Bagan’s big concern would be missing Sony Norde, I-League 2016’s best player. Along with Katsumi Yusa and Cornell Glenn (11 goals in the league), this trinity has been turning opposition defences inside out — the best offence in the league.
Bagan had made the final in 1977, the firstFedCup.Theylost.“Itwasn’tMohun Bagan whom we played. They weren’t a club. Rather, it was the national team who we played against,” saidMRajashekar,whose goal for Indian Telephone Industries won the trophy. East Bengal are the betting man’s horse in the race, but will have to go through their derby rivals to get to the final. Ranti Martins, the league’s best striker was quoted saying why it’s important to win: “I’ve been here for two years and still haven’t managed to help my club win the I-League. I feel ashamed. Every player feels ashamed.” Shame can fuel the engine when it’s running out. Trevor Morgan returning to the club as coach could provide a booster. At t he ot her end is Aizawl, for whom this could be a last bit of fun for a very entertaining side. Having being relegated, there’s no guarantee there’ll be an I-League to return to. Their season might not have gone well but it’ll be dangerous to underestimate the club who were the first to beat Bagan this season.