AIFF has often been criticized for its failure to take the I-League to major Indian cities. While football has continued to grow in popularity throughout the country, the league has remained confined to a few cities over the years, with clubs from Kolkata and Goa ruling the roost in the country’s premier football league over the years. In recent times though, I-League has seen the emergence of clubs from other cities too, with Pune FC, Shillong Lajong, Mumbai FC, and this year itself, Bengaluru FC, coming to the fore in the top flight. However, with calls for making the I-League a more pan-Indian tournament, it is necessary to take the league to other cities as well.

There are thousands of fans across the country who have been deprived of I-League action over the years. However, the AIFF does seem serious in taking the top-flight to other cities, as they showed by granting two franchisees to two private companies, albeit one of them failed to get their act together in the end. The success of Bengaluru FC in its first season itself illustrates the need to take the domestic game to cities which have strong fan bases. On the basis of popularity of the game, we pick five cities, in no particular order, which need I-League action to help bring in more fans into the game.

Kochi

Keralites are known for their love for the beautiful game. Whether it’s Kochi or Malappuram, football is extremely popular throughout the state. The state has witnessed the top flight of Indian football before on its soil, with FC Kochin being extremely popular during its heydays, while Viva Kerala, later renamed to Chirag United Kerala, succeeded in only partially recreating FC Kochin’s magic. Since the relegation of Chirag United Kerala, the I-League and the football fans of Kerala have missed each other. It is a shame that a state that has one of the highest football fan bases in the country, doesn’t have a club representing it in the country’s top flight.

Things however, are starting to look good for Kerala, with the recent emergence of Kochi’s Eagles FC into the national scene. The club has sent out a strong message of its intentions by roping in Stanley Rozario as the head coach, and will be vying for an I-League spot in this season’s I-League 2 competition. Moreover, there is still talk of Air Asia applying for a club from Kochi, instead of Chennai. The chances of a Kochi club playing in the I-League next season, thus, look very high at present, which is a great development for Indian football.

Aizawl

A local league game being played at the Lammual Stadium in Aizawl

The popularity of the Mizoram Premier League within the state of Mizoram itself illustrates the need for I-League football in the city of Aizawl. There are very few Indian cities whose local leagues could match the excitement created by the MPL among the local fans. Football is much more than a game in this northeastern state. The number of I-League players produced by Mizoram in the last decade bears witness to the immense talent within the state.

What now is required is a top flight football club, that will not only pull thousands of Mizos to the stands of the Lammual Ground, but will also help groom youngsters, and stop their exodus to other regions. In the first two editions of the Mizoram Premier League, thousands of local fans were seen thronging the stands to watch their favorite sides. An I-League side will do wonders for the further growth of the game within the state, but the road ahead will be tough. Clubs like Aizawl FC will have a hard task at hand to get through I-League 2, considering the presence of other highly competitive sides. However, with local clubs getting stronger every passing season, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see a club from Aizawl make the I-League cut in the coming years.

Imphal

Football is more than a religion in Manipur

There are few states in the country which can boast of the same level of footballing talent that Manipur possesses. Football is the sport of Manipur. The fanaticism for the beautiful game is so great that it would be an understatement to term football merely as a religion in Manipur. However, the state has suffered from a below-par state league. While fellow north eastern states Meghalaya and Mizoram have reaped the benefits of a strong local league, the Manipur State League hasn’t enjoyed as broader commercialization as its counterparts, and the results are there to see.

At present, the chances of any of the existing Manipuri clubs making it to the Indian top flight seem closer to nil. However, the AIFF by granting franchisees, can help expand I-League to Imphal. After all, a state that has contributed so greatly to Indian football, and a place where one could expect a jam-packed stadium during an I-League game, shouldn’t be left deprived of the country’s top flight.

New Delhi

Despite being the capital city of the country, it comes as a bit of a surprise knowing that there is no club from New Delhi playing in the country’s top flight. ONGC did play for a season here in 2011-12, but what Delhi-ites need is a club that can truly represent the people of the city. There is no dearth of football fans in the city. As has been illustrated by Bengaluru FC, if a club can be properly marketed to the urban youth, there is no reason why it cannot be a success. Delhi, at present, needs a club on the lines of Bengaluru FC. The infrastructure is already in place. It will not be easy for a club from Delhi to make the I-League cut through the route of I-League 2. The harsh truth for the Delhi United’s and the Hindustan FC’s is that they don’t possess the financial prowess to qualify for the I-League and become a mainstay in the top-flight. In such a scenario, it is important that AIFF takes measures to ensure I-League football reaches the national capital. With Delhi boasting of a large young urban populace, any local I-League club that can connect with the fans will be an instant hit.

Guwahati

Football in Assam has had a steady decline over the years. It all began with the loss of  popularity of the Bordoloi Trophy. Despite being an invitational tournament, the Bordoloi Stadium witnessed jam-packed stadiums during its heydays. The sheer hatred for clubs from Kolkata meant that there was always a special atmosphere in the stadium whenever either of the Kolkata giants played. However, local clubs failed to use Assamese sentiment as a catalyst for making it big in the national scenario. OIL FC of Duliajan never really connected with the fans, while the most popular side of the state, the state-owned Gauhati Town Club, suffered from mismanagement and internal-squabbling. There still, however, lies hope of I-League football in Guwahati. The Assamese capital city boasts of a significantly broad football fan-base, and AIFF is very well aware of that. The state association, however, needs to be proactive. The commercialization of the Assam State Premier League is the need of the hour, and it is important that the Assam Football Association understand that. The convenience of transportation facilities from rest of India to Guwahati, the presence of a more than decent stadium at Sarusajai and a football-mad urban populace means I-League football will reach Guwahati sooner than later.

The success of Bengaluru FC has opened up a new vista in Indian football and authorities will be more encouraged to focus on newer cities. One of the these cities can soon have a club in I-League and that will only add more depth and variety to the league.