The only I-League 2022-23 preview you need to read

The I-League winners' trophy. AIFF Media

The I-League is back, and this new season will see the much-awaited promise of promotion to the ISL put in place. Here's the only preview you need to read, with all you need to know about Indian football's second-tier competition.

What's new?

Considering the Indian Super League has been on for a month now, this probably doesn't qualify as 'new', but home-and-away is back. From Manjeri to Srinagar, Mumbai to Imphal, I-League football will be played in front of the fans again.

Nice! When does it start?

Saturday, November 12.

We know this because the AIFF announced the fixtures on November 1, 11 whole days ahead of the opener. As everyone involved knew the home-and-away system was coming back months in advance (the ISL schedule was announced on September 1, for instance), one can but wonder why it took so long.

What's at stake?

Besides that big-shiny I-League trophy? Promotion to the ISL - as promised in 2019!

That sounds big...

It's huge. This is the one announcement most I-League owners had been waiting to hear for years now.

Promotion-relegation is an integral part of most football structures worldwide - no one really wants to see a closed off system living in a bubble, do they? (Other than those in the bubble, of course). Over the past few years there's been a lot of confusion about the future of Indian football, and if this - admittedly baby step - is implemented, it will go a long way in clearing the clouds.

As former India international Jo Paul Ancheri says, "Always in football, we can see people coming up from the lower levels to and replacing those at the top. That's the way of things, and the roadmap will go a long way in facilitating that process."

Will there be relegation from the ISL?

No, not yet. As per the 2019 roadmap, relegation will happen from the 2024-25 season onwards.

So, who all are playing in the I-League?

Everybody who was there last year. Well, almost: Gokulam Kerala, Mohammedan Sporting, Sreenidi Deccan, Churchill Brothers, Roundglass Punjab, Rajasthan United, NEROCA, Aizawl, TRAU, Sudeva Delhi, Real Kashmir and Kenkre.

Wait, what happened to the Indian Arrows? And weren't Kenkre relegated?

The Arrows have, yet again, been disbanded. They finished 10th out of 13 clubs last season, but the new AIFF management was of the opinion that the funds utilised to run the club would be put to better use in developing youth leagues. Which is an understandable line of thought.

Kenkre, meanwhile, have been given an exemption from relegation after an appeal. They will have no travel subsidies this season, and they will have to sign Indian Arrows players in January (which they probably should do even if they aren't being compelled to).

Travel subsidies?

You thought we were being merely dramatic when we said "Manjeri to Srinagar, Mumbai to Imphal"? The I-League (and its predecessor, the NFL) has helped take football nation-wide and out of sport's age-old pockets in the country. That remains this league's greatest USP - South-to-North (2945 km from Payyanad stadium to TRC stadium), West-to-East (2751 kms from Cooperage to Khuman Lampak), the I-League truly covers the length and breadth of India.

Which also means that travel can be brutal - on bodies and on wallets - hence, the AIFF's travel subsidies.

Onto the actual football then. Who are the best team(s) on paper?

It's hard to look past the usual suspects. Gokulam Kerala are two-time defending champions and will be chomping at the bit to go and complete their hattrick - and get that ISL promotion. They will have a proper challenge ahead of them, though.

They've had to replace their coach, the exciting Italian Vincenzo Annesse, with Cameroon's Richard Towa. They've also had to almost completely refresh their squad after at least six regular starters left. There have been some interesting additions, like Brazilian playmaker Everton Kaka who could become their main man. But the key will be for Tawo to do what Annesse did so well - get the absolute best of the Indian talent at his disposal.

Their closest challengers over the past two seasons were one of the great institutions of Indian sport - Mohammedan Sporting Club (founded in 1891). They have warmed up pretty well for this season, defending their Calcutta Football League crown in an unbeaten campaign. Coach Andrey Chernyshov has already taken them to the brink of prominence; appointed last year, he led them to the final and the semifinal of the Durand Cup, won them their first CFL in 40 years and then their second, and took them to within a win of the I-League trophy last season.

In star striker Marcus Joseph - the league's top goalscorer last season with 15 - they have the kind of charismatic on-pitch leader who can power them through to the top. As with most I-League sides there's been a lot of chopping-and-changing in the squad ahead of this season, and that makes predicting how they will do ever so hard. Either way, Kolkata will wait with bated breath to see if the big three of Indian football will be reunited next season in the ISL.

Also watch out for Sreenidi Deccan FC - they had a very impressive debut season (finishing third) and appear to have made some smart moves in the transfer market.

Any other stories to keep an eye on?

Churchill Brothers are always great value in terms of sheer entertainment and that ought to hold true in 2022 as well.

Aizawl's commitment to developing Mizo football is unparalleled and you add coach Standly Rozario's love for attacking football and they may well continue to be the neutral's favourites.

Real Kashmir continue to be a beacon of hope in a greatly troubled region, but they'll hoping for a bit of magical realism to turn their fortunes around on the pitch.

Rajasthan United created ripples when they beat ATK Mohun Bagan and drew East Bengal in the Durand Cup earlier this year, as they leapfrogged them both to qualify for the knockouts. They'll want to prove that was no flash in the pan.

Oh, and the Imphal derby (TRAU vs NEROCA) has one of the best atmospheres for any sport, in any ground, across India.

Okay, so it's good to have a proper system with strong leagues across the pyramid. But with the ISL on at the same time... why should we watch it?

a) Drama. The league is usually decided on the last (match)day and you really can't appreciate a delicious climax if you haven't sat through the carefully constructed build-up.

b) The future, now. The league showcases the best of young Indian talent. With budgets considerably lower in the second-tier, the onus on Indian players to be the main driving force of their teams is higher too. It's where the Dheeraj Singhs and the Apuias and the Rahul KPs cut their teeth.

c) No such thing as too much football, right?

So, where can we watch it?

On Eurosport (or Discovery + on OTT ). It'll also be available on DD Sport.

The timings are well... some of them are not great: but with kickoffs from the unholy hour of 2 PM to the much more acceptable 7.00 PM, there's football on across the day for those who want it.