|Number of teams||8|
|Level on pyramid||1|
|Relegation to||I-League 2nd Division|
|Domestic cup(s)||Federation Cup|
|League cup(s)||Durand Cup|
AFC Champions League (Qualifying play-off)
Bengaluru FC (2nd title) |
|TV partners||TEN 2|
The I-League, officially known as the Hero I League due to sponsorship reasons, is an Indian professional league for men's association football clubs. Contested by 7 clubs (currently), it operates on a system of promotion and relegation with the I-League 2nd Division as well as a system of direct-entry.
Seasons run from January to May, with teams playing 18 matches each, totalling 90 matches in the season. Most games are usually played in the afternoons during the weekends or midweeks. It is currently sponsored by Hero.
The competition, formed as the ONGC I-League in 2007 in an effort to professionalize the game in India after holding the old National Football League for eleven seasons, replaced the NFL as the primary competition in the country. The league's first official broadcaster was Zee Sports. The first goal for the league was to have 16 teams by the third season, by which the league would be spread all around India.
Since the league inception, a total of five clubs have been crowned champions of the I-League. Of the 25 clubs to have competed since the inception of the I-League in 2007, the teams that have won the title are Mohun Bagan A.C. (once), Bengaluru FC (twice), Churchill Brothers (twice), Dempo (thrice), and Salgaocar (once) respectively. The title has only been won thrice by a team from outside of the state of Goa with the first six of eight editions of the league being won by Goan sides. The current champions of the I-League are Bengaluru FC, who won their second league title in three years.
In 1996 the first domestic league was started in India known as the National Football League. The league was started in an effort to introduce professionalism to Indian football. Despite that ambition, that has never been achieved. During the National Football League days the league suffered from poor infrastructure and unprofessionalism from its clubs. One of the clubs in the league, FC Kochin went defunct in 2002 after it was revealed that the club had not paid salaries since 2000 after running up 2.5 crores in losses a season.
After a decade of decline with the National Football League, the All India Football Federation decided it was time for a change and rebranding of the top-tier in India.
After the 2006–07 NFL season, it was announced that the National Football League would be relaunched and rebranded as the I-League for the 2007–08 season. The league's first season consisted of eight teams from the previous NFL campaign and two teams from the 2nd Division to form a 10 team league. Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), the title sponsors of the previous NFL, were named as the title sponsors of the I-League before the league kicked-off in November 2007. The league also announced a changed in their foreign-player restrictions with the new rule being that all the clubs could sign four foreigners – three non-Asian and one which must be Asian. The league also announced that, for the first season, matches will be broadcast on Zee Sports.
The early seasons (2007–2010)
Indian football champions
The first ever I-League match took place on 24 November 2007 between Dempo and Salgaocar. The match, which took place at the Fatorda Stadium in Margao, ended 3–0 in favour of Dempo with Chidi Edeh scoring the first ever goal in league history in the third minute. After eighteen rounds it was Dempo who came out as the first ever champions in the I-League. Viva Kerala and Salgaocar, however, ended up as the first two teams to ever be relegated from the I-League.
The next season the I-League was expanded from 10 to 12 teams. Mumbai, Chirag United, Mohammedan, and Vasco were all promoted from the I-League 2nd Division to make the expansion possible. This however brought up early concerns over how "national" the I-League was. The 2008–09 season would see eleven of the twelve teams come from three different cities. The previous season saw all ten teams come from four different cities. Baichung Bhutia, then captain of the Indian national team, said that it was the federations job to spread the game across the country and that it needed to happen.
Regardless of the early criticism, the I-League went on as scheduled and once the 2008–09 season concluded it was Churchill Brothers who came out on top. Then, before the 2009–10 season, the league was once again expanded from 12 teams to 14. In order to make this happen Salgaocar, Viva Kerala, Pune, and Shillong Lajong were all promoted from the 2nd Division to the I-League. This helped the I-League retain some criticism about how national the league was as now the league would be played in seven different cities/states: Goa, Kerala, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune, Punjab, and Shillong.
Conflict of parties
On 9 December 2010 the All India Football Federation signed a 15-year, 700-crore deal with Reliance Industries and International Management Group of the United States. The deal gave IMG-Reliance exclusive commercial rights to sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, video, franchising, and rights to create a new football league. This deal came about after the AIFF ended their 10-year deal with Zee Sports five years early back in October 2010.
Two months later, on 8 February 2011, it was reported that twelve of the fourteen I-League clubs held a private meeting in Mumbai to discuss the ongoing issues related to the league. It was never revealed what was exactly talked about at this meeting. Then, on 22 February, it was announced that the same twelve I-League clubs that attended the meeting would not be signing the AFC–licensing papers needed to play in the I-League. The reasoning for this was because the I-League clubs were not happy over the fact that IMG-Reliance had so far done nothing to promote the I-League and that they demanded the I-League be made a separate entity from both the AIFF and IMG-Reliance. At this time however there were rumours that IMG-Reliance had been planning on revamping the I-League along the same lines as Major League Soccer of the United States for the 2012–13 season.
On 11 March 2012, following the disbanding of two former I-League clubs – JCT and Mahindra United, it was announced that the I-League clubs would be forming their own organization known as the Indian Professional Football Clubs Association (IPFCA) in order to safeguard their interest and promote football in India. Every club, except for HAL and AIFF–owned Pailan Arrows, joined the newly formed organization. Soon after, it was announced that there would be a meeting held between the AIFF, IMG-Reliance, and the IPFCA on 20 April 2012. In this meeting, IMG-Reliance would present their plan on how they would grow the I-League but the meeting never occurred for reasons unknown.
Then, on 4 May 2012, the AIFF hosted the last ad hoc meeting – an annual meeting between the AFC and AIFF to assess the growth of Indian football. The AFC president at the time, Zhang Jilong, was also in attendance at this meeting. It was reported that the IPFCA would use this meeting to voice their displeasure at the AIFF and IMG-Reliance but the association never showed up at the meeting.
Despite the ongoing war between the AIFF, IMG-Reliance, and the IPFCA, the league did manage to improve its product on the field and awareness did increase during this period. It all started when the India national team participated in the AFC Asian Cup in 2011 for the first time in 27 years. Despite being knocked-out in the group stage after losing all three of their games, India came back home more popular than ever. Subrata Pal, of Pune gained the most popularity after his impressive performances in goal for India during the Asian Cup. At the same time, before the Asian Cup, Sunil Chhetri became the second Indian footballer in the modern footballing era to move abroad when he signed for the Kansas City Wizards in Major League Soccer in 2010. He also became the first exported Indian from the I-League.
The league was then given a major boost from its main derby, the Kolkata derby, between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. On 20 November 2011, 90,000 people watched at the Salt Lake Stadium as Mohun Bagan defeated East Bengal 1–0. The league also saw more expansion to others areas with the promotion of United Sikkim from the 2nd Division, however, their reign was short lived as financial troubles saw them relegated the next season.
Meanwhile, while the league continued to grow, so did the players demand. During this period plenty of Indian players were wanted on trial by foreign clubs, mainly in Europe. After his return from MLS, Sunil Chhetri and international teammate Jeje Lalpekhlua were called for trials at Scottish Premier League side Rangers in 2011. Subrata Pal had trials at RB Leipzig before finally signing for Vestsjælland in 2014. And Gurpreet Singh Sandhu underwent trials at then Premier League side Wigan Athletic.
At the same time, as Indian players demand abroad increased, the demand for higher quality foreigners in the I-League also increased. Former A-League player of the year and Costa Rican international Carlos Hernández signed with Prayag United before the 2012–13 season from the Melbourne Victory. Lebanese international Bilal Najjarine also signed with Churchill Brothers in 2012.
Since the league began in 2007 the rules of the league have changed almost yearly. Currently the league has 11 teams but the previous season there were 13 clubs in the I-League. Each club played each other twice during the season, once at home and the other away from home. The team that wins a match receives three points while both teams gain one point if they draw. A loser is not awarded any points. At the end of the season, the team with the most points wins the league. In that case of a tie then the Goal difference is looked upon. further in case of a tie the head to head record is looked upon of the tied teams.
Clubs from the I-League primarily participate internationally in the AFC Cup, however, some I-League clubs have had the chance to qualify for the AFC Champions League. From 2007 to 2011 the champions of the previous season of the I-League were allowed to play in a qualifier for the Champions League. Then from 2011 to 2013 no I-League club played in a qualifier till Pune in 2014 after the club passed the AFC Licensing Criteria. However, to this day, no I-League has actually qualified for the AFC Champions League.
Since the original National Football League, the Indian league has always been sponsored. When the I-League began in 2007 the last sponsor from the old National Football League, ONGC, where brought in as the sponsors, making the league be known as the ONGC I-League. However, after the 2010–11 season, the deal with ONGC was not renewed and the I-League was left without a sponsorship deal till 2013. On 24 September 2013, it was announced that telecommunications company, Airtel would be the new title sponsor of the I-League, thus making the league known as the Airtel I-League. In December 2014, it was announced that Hero MotoCorp would replace Airtel as the title sponsor for the league and hence the league would be known has Hero I-League.
As of January 2017, main broadcasters of the I League through the world are listed in following table
|India||TEN 2, DD Sports|
|Sri Lanka||TEN 2|
|Bangladesh||TEN 2, Channel 9|
Since 2007 the I-League has managed to find a way to be telecast, which is drastic in increasing the profile and popularity of the league. Before the inaugural 2007–08 season the All India Football Federation reached a deal with Zee Sports to broadcast 45 of the 90 matches that season with TEN Sports broadcasting 15 matches in the inaugural season. The deal with Zee Sports was a continuation of the 10-year deal reached between the AIFF and Zee Sports in 2005. However, in October 2009, Zee Sports reportedly sent a letter to the AIFF asking for the federation to review the 10-year contract after concerns were raised by the broadcaster that the league was not attracting as many sponsors as they would have liked. In August 2010 it was revealed that there were crunch talks between the AIFF and Zee Sports over these concerns and that there was a provision in the 10-year deal that said it could be reviewed after the first five years.
Then, in October 2010, it was revealed that the AIFF had decided to terminate the 10-year deal with Zee Sports five months early. It was also announced that the AIFF had lined up IMG–Reliance as the new marketing rights partner of the league and national team. It was also announced that Zee Sports would want Rs. 70 crore in compensation for the AIFF terminating the previous 10-year contract. The deal with IMG-Reliance was officially announced on 9 December 2010. Through this agreement, IMG-Reliance were given exclusive rights to sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights. However, despite this agreement, the 2010–11 season went without any broadcasting partner nationally. The AIFF did start to invite proposals however for a new telecast broadcaster but it would only be for the 2010–11 season. It was ten announced on 3 February 2010 that local Bengali channel, Mahuaa Bangla, would be the one and only broadcaster of the league for the rest of the season.
In September 2010, after the disaster that was the 2010–11 season for television in the I-League, it was announced that the AIFF and IMG-Reliance had reached an agreement with local broadcasters Brand Value Communications from the house of Rose Valley Group to have games shown locally on News Time in West Bengal and Assam for one season. However, in October 2011, it was announced that a deal with national broadcaster had been found and that was with TEN Action for one season. The deal included 75 matches for the 2011–12 season. IMG -Reliance signed a deal for 2016 season with Ten Sports
Then, after the 2011–12 season, it was announced that the AIFF and IMG-Reliance had reached a mega deal with TEN Sports to broadcast the I-League and national team for three-years. The deal, which started for the 2012–13 season and will end after the 2014–15 season, would see TEN Action being used to broadcast 75 matches a season.
When the I-League began in 2007 and the deal with Zee Sports and TEN Sports it was announced that TEN Sports in the Middle East and North Africa and Zee Sports in the United States would broadcast 30 games live for the 2007–08 season.
One of the major criticisms of the I-League has been the league's continuing financial instability. Since the league began in 2007 the league has seen four clubs disband their operations – Chirag United Kerala, JCT, Mahindra United, and Pailan Arrows. When JCT disbanded, head of operations, Samir Thapar stated that the lack of any credible exposure and money as a major reason for JCT disbanding. The majority of clubs in the league rely on main sponsors the fund the team through a season at least. This is mainly due to the fact that clubs in the I-League do not rely on income from merchandise sales or ticket sales and that television revenue goes directly to the All India Football Federation instead of the clubs.
Currently attendance in the I-League is suffering as the 2013–14 season only averaged 5,618 per game. Mohun Bagan averaged the most spectators that season with an average of 17,068 while Shillong Lajong ended up being the only other I-League club to finish with an average attendance over 10,000 when the finished at 11,308 per game. Part of the reason for these attendances other than the lack of marketing has been cited as being the fact that most I-League matches start in the afternoon when it is way too hot for fans than during the night.
Most football clubs in India are what are termed Institutional teams. That means it is difficult for players or coaches to turn into complete professionals. The players who play for institutional teams would also work on a full-time job outside of the game for his company the team was sponsored by. This is much the same model which was found in Japan before the introduction of the J. League. The positives are that the teams are usually well resourced with players earning decent money and the prospect of employment after their footballing days finish. On the negative side, teams only represent a few thousand workers rather than whole cities and thus do not gain broad support.
On 21 February 2014 it was officially announced that the two remaining institutional clubs in the I-League – Air India and ONGC – had been expelled from the I-League and that all other institutional clubs would not be allowed to participate in the league.
The following 9 clubs participated in the I-League 2015–16 season.
|Aizawl||Aizawl (Mizoram)||Rajiv Gandhi Stadium||20,000|
|Bengaluru FC||Bengaluru (Karnataka)||Sree Kanteerava Stadium||24,000|
|DSK Shivajians||Pune (Maharashtra)||Balewadi Sports Complex||12,000|
|East Bengal||Kolkata (West Bengal)|| Salt Lake Stadium
|Mohun Bagan||Kolkata (West Bengal)|| Salt Lake Stadium
|Mumbai||Mumbai (Maharashtra)||Cooperage Football Stadium||5,000|
|Salgaocar||Vasco (Goa)||Tilak Maidan (Vasco)||12,000|
|Shillong Lajong||Shillong (Meghalaya)||Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (Shillong)||30,000|
|Sporting Goa||Panjim (Goa)||Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (Goa)||19,000|
- East Bengal will play all their matches until January 27, 2016 at the Salt Lake Stadium and the remaining matches at the Barasat Stadium. The return leg of the Kolkata Derby (Home match for East Bengal) on April 2, 2016 will be played at the Kanchenjunga Stadium.
- Mohun Bagan will play all their matches until January 27, 2016 at the Salt Lake Stadium and the remaining matches at the Barasat Stadium.
The role of the head coach in the I-League varies from club to club. Some clubs in the I-League like to appoint technical directors as well as head coaches and the technical directors for the most part are given the power the select the squad and sometimes the entire team management. The All India Football Federation does impose licensing requirements for head coaches in the I-League, the rule being that the head coach must have an AFC A-License in order to coach in the I-League, however, some clubs and coaches like Subhash Bhowmick, Subrata Bhattacharya, Sukhwinder Singh, and Bimal Ghosh are known for accepting a technical directors role in order to bypass the head coaching requirements without an A-License. This has bought about a lot of controversial news in the I-League, most recently being when Churchill Brothers won the I-League after the 2012–13 season with Subhash Bhowmick running the entire team on and off the field but not winning the "Coach of the Year" award due to being listed as the technical director and not the head coach.
Seeing this, the AIFF technical director, Rob Baan, as well as others, advocated that the federation make it mandatory for both technical directors and head coaches to have an AFC A-License. On 14 May 2014 this was officially put into act by the AIFF during their I-League licensing committee meeting.
In terms of coaching performance, after the first seven seasons of the I-League, an Indian head coach has won the I-League four times while a foreign head coach has won it three times. Zoran Đorđević of Serbia was the first ever foreign head coach to win the I-League while the second coach was Karim Bencherifa of Morocco. Englishman Ashley Westwood was the most recent foreign coach to win the I-League after the 2013–14 season.
Armando Colaco was the first Indian coach to win the I-League in the league's opening season and he has the most I-League championships at three. Mariano Dias is the only other Indian coach to win the I-League.
The current head coaches in the I-League are:
|Singto, ThangboiThangboi Singto||Shillong Lajong||22 January 2013|
|Sen, SanjoySanjoy Sen||Mohun Bagan||9 December 2014|
|Trevor Morgan||East Bengal||13 April 2016|
|Dave Rogers||DSK Shivajians||14 June 2016|
|Kashyap, SantoshSantosh Kashyap||Mumbai||22 June 2016|
|Albert Roca||Bengaluru FC||6 July 2016|
Stats and players
|Season||Total Goals||Matches played||Average per Game|
Season after season, players in the I-League compete for the golden boot title, which is awarded at the end of each season to the top scorer throughout the entire season. The most recent winners of the golden boot are Sunil Chhetri, Darryl Duffy, and Cornell Glenn, who all won the golden boot at the end of the 2013–14 season after scoring 14 goals each. Odafe Onyeka Okolie and Ranti Martins are both currently the holders of the most golden boot titles with three and four each. The two Nigerians make up the seven golden boots won by Nigerians, the most of any nationality in the league.
The I-League has only been awarding a proper trophy to the champion since 2013 when the 2012–13 season champions, Churchill Brothers, won the league. Before 2013 the I-League champions received a basic trophy. The new trophy was designed in Europe and is modeled along the lines of the champion trophies in the top European leagues. Regarding the trophy, the AIFF general secretary, Kushal Das, said "It is the endeavour of AIFF to practice the best principles of other leagues and accordingly we thought to create a more contemporary look to the I-League trophy in line with trophies given in European leagues".
Player and coach awards
End of season I-League awards are currently conducted by the Football Players Association of India since 2009. The awards include best head coach, best foreign player, best Indian player, best young player, and the fans player of the year. The AIFF give out the best referee award.
Fans Player of the Year
|Champions||₹10 million (US$150,000)|
|1st Runners-up||₹6 million (US$89,000)|
|2nd Runners-up||₹4 million (US$59,000)|
|Fourth||₹2.5 million (US$37,000)|
|Matchday Subsidy||₹100,000 (US$1,500)|
|Match winner||₹50,000 (US$740)|
I-League clubs in Asia
Traditionally, I-League clubs have done particularly well in the AFC Cup. In 2008 Dempo managed to reach the semi-finals of the AFC Cup before being defeated by Al-Safa of Lebanon. East Bengal also managed to reach the semi-finals in 2013 before being knocked-out by Kuwait SC. Bengaluru FC have recently made it to the AFC Final.
In the AFC Champions League however, no I-League club has ever managed to make it past the qualifiers.
|Season||AFC Cup||Position||AFC Champions League||Position|
|2008–09||Mohun Bagan||4th in Group Stage||Dempo||Qualifiers|
|Dempo||Round of 16|
|2009–10||East Bengal||4th in Group Stage||Churchill Brothers||Qualifiers|
|Churchill Brothers||Round of 16|
|2010–11||East Bengal||4th in Group Stage||Dempo||Qualifiers|
|Dempo||Round of 16|
|2011–12||East Bengal||4th in Group Stage||Salgaocar||DNP|
|Salgaocar||4th in Group Stage|
|2012–13||East Bengal||Semi-Final||Churchill Brothers||DNP|
|Churchill Brothers||3rd in Group Stag|
|2013–14||Churchill Brothers||Round of 16||Pune||Qualifiers|
|Pune||4th in Group Stage|
|2014–15||Bengaluru FC||Round of 16||Bengaluru FC||Preliminary Round 1|
|East Bengal||3rd in Group Stage|
|2015–16||Mohun Bagan||Round of 16||Mohun Bagan||Preliminary Round 2|
|2016–17||Bengaluru FC||TBD||Bengaluru FC||TBD|
- Tournament currently in progress
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