Across the major footballing leagues in the world, be it England or Spain, one thing that stands out is the presence of a sound and fiercely competitive division-2. The fight for relegation is as closely monitored as the race for the crown and the division-2 does gets its fair-share of media coverage. The I-League also has seen five seasons of division-2 with the sixth one kicking off recently. Mumbai FC, Salgaocar, ONGC and Shillong Lajong have emerged as winners in previous editions. Though the coverage is not excellent now, it can be safely said that the standard and coverage of the second divison has steadily increased. Previous editions of I-League Div-2 have also seen some nail biting encounters with teams taking the promotion battle to the wire.
2008 – The Inaugural Edition
The 2008 edition saw 12 teams divided into two groups of 6 teams each with the preliminary rounds played at Pune and Kolhapur. The teams that played included Vasco, Chirag Kerala, Pune FC , Mumbai FC, Mohammedan Sporting, ONGC, HAL, SBT among others. The Pune group saw Chirag Kerala (then called Viva Kerala), Vasco and Pune FC advance to the final rounds while the Kolhapur group saw Mumbai FC, Mohammedan Sporting and Indian Bank go through to the final round, which was held in Guwahati. The highlight of the round was the fact that United SC progressed as the only team undefeated in the group stages.
With four spots up for grab, the now powerhouses Pune FC and Indian Bank fell behind in the race right from the start. Despite possesing players like Jeje and Bungo Singh, Pune finished second from bottom in the group. Mumbai FC riding on goals from Ghainian Internationl Striker Felix Aboagye (played in AFCON for Ghana) and Abhishek Yadav finished the top with 13 points from 5 games while Kolkata teams Mohammedan Sporting and United SC finished on 10 points to qualify as second and third. Sporting Clube featured the likes of Mike Okoro, Muritala Ali and Roque Barreto. A strong Vasco side led by Luciano Sabrosa finished on 7 points to qualify as the last team. The highlight of the final round was a seven goal thriller between Vasco and Pune which Pune won 4-3 after Vasco had led 2-1 at halftime
2009 – Young Talent On Display
The 2009 edition saw the number of teams participating in the preliminary round increase to 15 from 12 and the rounds were played in Cochin, Gurgaon and Silchar . The participating teams included eventual runners-up and North-Eastern powerhouse Shillong Lajong, SESA FA, Pune FC, Salgaocar, Viva Kerala, ONGC , a couple of clubs from Delhi and Kerala. SESA, Pune FC, Salgaocar, Shillong Lajong, ONGC and Viva Kerala qualified from the three groups to the final round. The division-2 boasted of some of the finest young talents in the nation with the likes of CS Sabeeth, MP Sakeer and Shabbas Saleel turning up for Viva Kerala and Francis Fernandez and Bivan D Mello turning up for Salgaocar.
The highlight of the initial round was a 7-0 demolition of Shimla Youngs by SESA FA. The final round was keenly contested with only 3 points separating the top 5 teams. Salgaocar with 10 points clinched the top spot with Lajong, Pune FC and Viva Kerala all qualifying with 9 points each. ONGC with 7 points finished 5th and narrowly missed the bus to the top flight again. Jeje Lalpekhuala and CS Sabeeth announced their arrival with goals throughout the tournament while Seikhohao Tuboi was the star for Shillong Lajong. Since there arrival into I-League, Pune FC have grown from strength to strength again emphasizing the importance of a fiercely contested Division-2
2010 – Institutional Sides Triumph
The 2010 edition was a historic one as it saw as many as 21 teams from across the nation. There were teams from Sikkim, Chattisgarh, Manipur and Meghalya in addition to the usual suspects. The highlight of the event was the growing participation of the North-Eastern clubs. The 21 teams were divided into three groups and the groups were based in Delhi, Bangalore and Tripura. Two top teams from each group namely Malabar United, HAL, SESA, ONGC, NISA and Oil India joined the two relegated teams from last season’s I-League Mohammedan Sporting and Vasco in the final round to decide the two spots for qualification.
A lot of then young players , who are now established players mesmerized the fans with their talent. K. Asif of Malabar United, Joy Ferraro of Vasco , Meetei of NISA and Israil Gurung of SESA were duly rewarded with transfers to the big clubs after their impressive showing. ONGC emerged as the winners and didn’t lose a single match in the final round thanks to impressive performances from Jatin Singh Bisht, Badmus Babatunde and Tarif Ahmed who even scored a hat-trick. With the final round being played in Bangalore, HAL utilized their home advantage to perfection and clinched the second spot to qualify with captain and striker Xavier Vijay Kumar leading from the front. The much fancied Mohammedan Sporting failed to impress and finished fourth.
2011 – A Controversial End
The 2011 I-League was perhaps one of the most entertaining and keenly awaited edition as football fans kept a close eye on United Sikkim’s performance, which was the baby of one of the most decorated players in Indian Football – Baichung Bhutia. As the popular cliche goes – the 2011 I-League 2nd division had everything for the neutrals – goals, misses, heartbreaks, jubliations and controversies. The 21 team first round was played in Guwhati, Jamesdpur and Madurai and United Sikkim, Southern Samity, Mohammedan Sporting, Royal Wahingdoh, Vasco and Ar-Hima qualified for the final round where they were joined by Sporting Club de Goa and Shillong Lajong – the two relegated teams from last season’s I-League. The highlight of the first round was the 100% win record of Royal Wahingdoh, coached by former India international Carlton Chapman.
Vasco emerged as early contenders for the qualification when they edged Sporting Club early on while the Kolkata duo of Southern Samity and Mohammedan Sporting fell behind early on and expectantly finished at the bottom of the table. With Vasco dropping crucial points, United Sikkim playing out draws and Royal Wahingdoh failing to maintain their first round form, Sporting Club de Goa, Ar-Hima and Shillong Lajong emerged favorites to qualify. In the end it was Shilling Lajong who utilized their home advantage to perfection and a young Sporting side consisting of now household names but then young players – Adil Khan, Freiman Peixoto and Jovel Martins, qualified.
Sekhohao Tuboi, India U-23 striker played for Army XI in the kolkata League before turning up for Shillong Lajong in the Division-2. Southern Samity lodged a protest against Lajong to the AIFF which put their progression in jeopardy. The AIFF however let off Lajong with clubs accusing Larsing Ming, an influential member in AIFF of having influenced their decision. There were some memorable moments as well as Baichung Bhutia turned up as a center-back for his side United Sikkim displaying immense levels of commitment
2012 – North Eastern Bonanza
The 23 team initial round was played in three locations – Cuttack, Delhi and Orissa and the 6 qualified teams – United Sikkim, Kalighat, Mohammedan Sporting, Royal Wahingdoh, Vasco and Aizwal FC joined ONGC for the final round which was played over two phases – Siliguri and Gangtok with each of the team playing the other twice. Aizwal FC were the story of the tournament as the new entrant to the I-League stunned bigger clubs to reach the final round and though they faltered in the final round, they held United Sikkim to draw and made a three goal comeback against Mohammedan Sporting after they were 4-0 down at half-time. Michael and David Lalrinmuana were easily two of the revelations of the 2nd division I-League.
Riding on the impressive scoring form of their foreign strikers- Babatunde, Jacobs and Bidemi, pre tournament favorites United Sikkim qualified for the I-League. The tournament witnessed a unique thing when sensing promotion, Sikkim state government declared that government employees will be granted leaves if they showed United’s match tickets. The I-League division-2 crown however was won by ONGC who were clinical throughout the tournament conceding only 9 goals in the 12 match final stage.
It was a long walk however for the Kolkata giants Mohammedan Sporting who finished third, one point behind leaders ONGC. Royal Wahingdoh paid the price of fielding four foreign players which saw their win over ONGC turn into a defeat. This was a defining moment in the tournament as Royal Wahingdoh were going strong up till then. Vasco finished second-last while Aizwal were last. There was some controversy though with clubs alleging that the AIFF was helping United Sikkim qualify.