I-League season set to begin on November 25
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) will decide on the fixture list for the 2017-18 I-League season over the next couple of days, with the country's officially-recognised top-division league likely to kick off on November 25.
ESPN understands that matches will be played mostly over the weekends, with kick-offs at 5:30 pm, and none of the 10 teams will play more than one game per week. Second-division champions NEROCA FC of Manipur and direct entrants Gokulam FC from Kerala will be two of three new teams slated to be in action this season, replacing the relegated Mumbai FC and Bengaluru FC, who will be seen in action in the Indian Super League (ISL) this year.
With Pune-based DSK Shivajians also having withdrawn their team from the top division, the tenth team is likely to be the Indian Arrows team of the AIFF, comprising the best players across U-19 and U-17 youth categories.
Most teams ESPN spoke to, however, are unaware of even a tentative fixtures list for the season.
"We were told to be ready to play our first match on the 22nd, but we haven't been given any fixtures yet," said NEROCA general manager Arun Thangjam, whose team play ISL champions ATK in a pre-season friendly in Kolkata on Tuesday.
"We have put together a good team for this season, and we have some good foreigners from countries like Australia [defender Aryn Williams] and Haiti [midfielder Fabian Vorbe]. We played NorthEast United in a pre-season friendly and while we lost, we created a number of chances against them."
Minerva Punjab owner Ranjit Bajaj told ESPN that the AIFF had told him a week back to be "prepare for a start on the 25th" but the club is yet to learn of their matches.
"We can't go to any sponsors and they haven't given us enough time for marketing, kit launches or organising the ticketing process," said Bajaj, whose team will be in action in friendlies against Bengaluru FC on Tuesday and Wednesday.
I-League rules this year allow a maximum of six foreigners to be registered and five to play, with at least two of them required to be from an AFC nation. Bajaj told ESPN he would only register a sixth foreigner if the need arose.
"We have five foreigners, but because we were only playing in the Punjab League, our team hasn't been able to play together. We had a practice match yesterday, where our likely first team played together for the first time for about 30 minutes. Obviously, it would have been good to have had two-three weeks more like the ISL clubs."
The AIFF has also announced that I-League champions Aizawl FC and Federation Cup winners Bengaluru FC are the only two teams that have satisfied both AFC and national licensing criteria for the season, making the former eligible for the AFC Champions League play-off in January, and the latter will enter the AFC Cup for 2018.
"The ISL clubs need not apply for AFC or national license for this year, as they have been given a one-year exemption. From the following season, anybody hoping to compete in domestic or international competition will have to fulfill both national and AFC club licensing criteria," AIFF general secretary Kushal Das told ESPN.