The third season of the I-League ended on Friday with Sporting Clube de Goa and Shillong Lajong FC having to go down after the longest national league season ever in Indian football. For the first ever clubs had to play 26 matches across the season and what an interesting season it has been.
Dempo had won the title a few weeks back, but the relegation battle was on until the last day with Sporting Clube de Goa, Shillong Lajong FC, Mumbai FC and Air India fighting for survival. In the end the two Mumbai sides survived as Sporting Clube de Goa and Shillong Lajong FC had to go down.
If Sporting Clube de Goa had stayed up it would have been the greatest escape in Indian football then at one stage the club was more then 10 points behind a non-relegation spot, but a rally in the second half of the season under new (old) coach Vishwas Gaonkar saw the team only finish one point behind that 12th spot, which would have meant I-League football for the Goans next season. Until a stage last season Sporting Clube were challenging for the title now they go down and one will have to see if and how the club regroups.
The saddest story of Round 26 was Shillong Lajong FC's defeat at the hands of Salgaocar SC and it meant that the first ever club from the North-East to play in the NFL/I-League has to go down after only a season at the top level.
It isn't just a loss for Shillong or the North-East but the whole of Indian football as Lajong brought in a breath of fresh air into Indian club football and also showed what was possible with hard work and dedication, but in the end all the passion didn't pay off. The club went through a roller coaster season which had its climax in the final appearance in the Federation Cup in Guwahati in January 2010 and its low point on the last day of the season with the clubs relegation from the I-League.
One can only hope that Lajong rebuilds itself quickly and has a team ready to fight for promotion next season to be back in a years time in the I-League's top tier.
But other clubs can surely learn a lot from Lajong when it comes to club promotion and fan activation.
The real positive surprise of the season where Pune FC. They team from Maharashtra had a difficult start into the I-League with numerous draws, but once it got its rhythm right the team was challenging for a top three finish.
Pune isn't known as a football centre, but the club which had been building itself over the last three years since its formation has been able to connect to the football fans and has been able to draw bigger crowds then expected and was able to connect to the youngsters in the city through a school contact programme. More is hopefully to come of them in the years to come.
Besides Lajong the other sad story of the season was that of the Mahindra Group deciding to close down Mahindra United. Shifting their focus as the management said on youth development and also on another sport in Basketball with a tie-up with the NBA. At the time of the announcement Mahindra United were second in the I-League with a chance to win the title, but in the end they finished fourth. They played their last competitive match on May 27 against JCT which the team won 2-1.
We look forward to the I-League 2010/11 season when Mumbai's ONGC and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited from Bangalore take the places of the two clubs, while the India Under-21 boys will replace the closed down Mahindra United. The league remains 14 teams strong and the planned expansion to 16 teams has been put off by a year.
It will be the last I-League season before the AFC Club Licensing criteria come into effect and according to I-League CEO Sunando Dhar new franchises will be joining the league in the 2011/12 season.