Amid the sudden developments surrounding Indian football, the Dempo Sports Club is firmly establishing its supremacy in the ONGC I-League, the country’s premier club tournament.
Dempo (on 50 points) came closer to the title with Wednesday’s 2-0 victory over Air India.
This year’s I-League, however, is being played at a time when the sport is seeing many changes. The continuing decline of Kolkata teams and the unexpected decision to disband Mumbai’s Mahindra United contrasts with the emergence of two new teams, from Pune and Shillong, which may well add an interesting dimension to the country’s football scene. Nationally, the confusion about the resignation of Indian team coach Bob Houghton is yet to be resolved.
Houghton’s resignation comes ahead of the national team’s preparation for the Asia Cup in Doha next year. His alleged spat with All India Football Federation (AIFF) general secretary Alberto Colaco has resulted in a situation where the Federation will have to struggle for a solution at the executive committee meeting in New Delhi on Friday.
The beautiful game: (right) Dempo’s top scorer Ranti Martins in action; Sporting Clube de Goa (in white) and Air India fight for possession of the ball in an I-League match. Photo: Hindustan Times
Mahindra United’s decision will also be discussed at the meeting. But “the I-League authority will not interfere in their (Mahindras’) decision. It is entirely a corporate decision and AIFF has nothing to do it,” says I-League CEO Sunando Dhar.
These issues may take a bit away from Dempo’s success story, which has been planned by its shrewd coach, Armando Colaco. Says the coach: “I will give credit entirely to my players. It is their endeavour which made me a successful coach.”
If Dempo does win, it will be the team’s fourth title since 2005 (2007, 2008)—it has displaced the high-profile Kolkata clubs, which haven’t won the league since 2005. Strategically, Dempo is now well-placed to win this year’s I-League.
The team’s experienced defender, Mahesh Gawli, says: “We played well in our away matches (games outside Goa) and that’s what made the difference. We only lost one away game against Viva Kerala.”
While Dempo excelled, the failure of another Goan club, Churchill Brothers, was a disappointment, particularly after a great start. Churchill’s over-dependence on striker Okolie Odafe and some off-field controversies (Odafe and two others were booked for allegedly molesting an airline staffer) proved a dampener. The team looked like a rudderless ship and was soon pretty much out of the race. “We lacked that special factor at crucial moments. But still, we emerged from the controversy and have performed well this season,” says Churchill’s defender Gouramangi Singh, who will attend trials for the Melbourne Heart FC in Australia.
Understood to have been felled by falling revenue, Mahindra United still managed to run neck-and-neck with Dempo in the points table till the last five matches. “This news has shocked us but we still managed to play well. This is a loss for Indian football and Mumbai football,” says Steven Dias, a Mahindra United and India player. The team has always had a good run in the I-League, winning in 2006.
“Whatever happened is unfortunate. But from the corporate sector’s point of view, it’s bound to happen,” says India’s captain Bhaichung Bhutia.
While Mohun Bagan and East Bengal trailed Dempo, Mahindra and Churchill, Chirag United brought some cheer for fans in Kolkata. With fringe and rejected players from both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, Chirag was able to build a well-knit squad and did reasonably well to emerge as a third force from Kolkata.
Two new fledgling teams in the I-League—Pune Football Club and Shillong Lajong—did exceedingly well. Pune FC had signed India goalkeeper Subrata Paul ahead of the season; the presence of former India captain S. Venkatesh lent solidity to an otherwise inexperienced squad. Currently, Pune is in fourth spot.
For the first time, a team from the North-East qualified, ensuring the I-League had representation from all regions. Lajong’s matches at home in Shillong were watched by a large number of fans, as were Pune’s home matches.
After making it to the final of the Federation Cup (they lost to East Bengal), Lajong emerged with a lot of promise and hope. They did have a few upset wins and are now placed 11th.
If Dempo and Churchill remain the flag-bearers of Goan football, Sporting Clube de Goa and Salgaocar Sports Club’s poor show has taken the sheen off celebrations in that state. Sporting Clube, which was second last year, is staring at relegation. So is Salgaocar (24 points), along with Mumbai Football Club and Air India (both on 25 points).
Dempo coach Colaco put his team’s success in perspective: “We are ahead of Bengal because we do not take short cuts to success. We believe in long-term plans.”
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