How a Mohun Bagan victory could be a cause of joy for East Bengal fans – their fiercest rivals.

bagan

It is very difficult to sum up what Indian Football is today. On one side is the Indian Super League — the answer to country’s footballing woes as some predicted. The glamour and the star-studded line-ups were supposed to bring a huge change in the mindset of a cricket loving nation and kick-start a new culture of embracing other sports. On the other side is the I-League, supposedly India’s number one professional men’s football league, in complete disarray following the withdrawals of three major clubs. With sponsorships hard to find and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) failing to give assurances on the future of the league,  the clubs are facing a crisis situation heading into 2015-16 season. And somewhere lost in between the tug of war is a national football team, that has seen its matches being reduced and its FIFA rankings dilly-dally.  Let’s break that down — 12 matches played in 2010, 20 in 2011, 11 in 2012, 12 in 2013, two in 2014 (ISL begins) and nine so far and three more to go in 2015. 12 isn’t a bad number (compared to previous years) but one must not forget that eight came via World Cup qualifiers (AIFF can’t screw that up) and another three to come are the SAFF games. Which means we have had a mammoth ONE international friendly in 2015.

Amidst all the chaos, an interesting story has developed in the heart of Kolkata, the Mecca of football in the country. According to the rule books (such a thing apparently does exist), if the country’s top club (I-League toppers and not ISL) qualifies for the ACL (AFC Champions League) then the 3rd place team earns a place in the AFC Cup play-offs. Last year’s champions, Mohun Bagan will face off against Tampines Rovers (Singapore) on January 27 for a berth in the Champions League. If they make the cut, then the third placed team in last year’s I-League, Royal Wahingdoh, earns a place on the AFC Cup play-offs. But the Shilling-based have pulled out of the I-League, which means East Bengal, the fourth placed side, will now stand a chance to profit from Mohun Bagan’s victory in the play-offs.

The irony is so twisted that it would force a smile out of even the most fanatic football fan. AIFF continues to be Shakespeare, periodically producing drama (mostly when there isn’t a need for it). Last year, the most successful team in I-League history, Dempo FC , got chucked out of the I-League (relegated being the key word used) because a lower placed team Bharat FC had earned themselves a guaranteed stay virtue of being a corporate team. But earlier this year, Bharat FC pulled out the league citing financial reasons. Yes, AIFF kicked out a historic team to ensure a corporate culture in football.  And the team packed off after a few months. Ah, that bittersweet after-taste of irony!

Right amount of football – Arata Izumi

Intelligent movement, lethal finishing and tireless running are the characteristics of an excellent attacking midfielder in football. In the recent season of the Indian Super League, Japanese-born Arata Izumi showed exactly these skills and justified the hefty Rs. 68 lakhs that Atletico de Kolkata paid in the ISL auction to secure his services. He scored five goals in 11 appearances and helped guide his team to the semi-finals.

Izumi, who was the captain of the now disbanded I-League team, Pune FC, will play the new season for Mumbai FC, where he will join his old Mahindra FC team-mates Steven Dias and N. P. Pradeep. The midfielder took some time off his busy pre-season to talk to Sportstar.

Excerpts:

Question: Congrats on a great ISL outing. Can you share with us your experiences of playing for Atletico alongside some greats of football?

Answer: Thank you! Well, yes, it was a fantastic experience, true. And, I’m sure it was the same for them too! ISL is one of the most-watched sports leagues in the world, so I’m sure it was a surprising and enjoyable experience for all the international players. India is an incredible country, and playing here, in front of the football-crazy crowds of Kolkata, Kochi, Goa etc. must have been a lovely experience for them! ISL had the perfect mix of great international and Indian talents, and that’s what made the experience really special.

Tell us about your time at Pune and what you expect now in Mumbai.

Ah, Pune will always be very special. They were a new club when I signed with them, and I literally saw the club grow into a great team! I had a great time over there, made some lifelong friendships with my teammates, and was taken really good care of by the management. Pune FC will always remain very close to my heart!

Mumbai is a new challenge for me. I feel great to come back to the city after nearly six years. We have a good team with the potential to do really well this season. And, the coach is marshalling us very well. I have faith in this team, and am positive that it’s going to be an extremely fruitful association!

Is the I-League following the ISL a bad idea? A number of players are unavailable through injury. Is too much football happening?

I don’t think so. This is just the right amount of football, I think. The sport is starting to catch on, people are following it more than ever… this is precisely how it should be! We need to focus on our fitness, be prepared to work hard, and make the most of this opportunity! I mean, how can there be any such thing as “too much football”? I’m fit, I’m feeling great, and I’m raring to go!

What do you think the I-League needs to do to attract more foreign players to the country?

I don’t think the I-League needs to do anything! It’s a well-respected league with a roster of some incredibly talented players, and known across the globe. Also, there’s so much talent within India that we really don’t need to be looking outside for a boost, in the first place. And, if there are international players who want to come and play here, I’m sure they’ll figure out a way to. Just the way I did!

What is your take on a potential ISL-I League merger? Will it be good for the players?

I really don’t know if any such thing is on the cards. But, what I do know is that whatever happens, it should ultimately benefit Indian football. And, I intend to play an active role in it!

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