Given the setbacks that dogged the Federation Cup, exposing the functioning of the All India Football Federation (Aiff), the kick-off of the I-League on Saturday will be watched with trepidation and interest. Ten of the 14 teams in the championship will take to the field on the opening day at five venues—Margao, Gangtok, Kolkata, Pune and Shillong.
One section of the just-concluded Federation Cup was scheduled to be held in Ranchi, but the venue was changed to Jamshedpur by Aiff a week before the event because the ground was not up to standard. Aiff marketing associate IMG-Reliance, a joint venture of the global sports and fashion consultancy IMG World and Reliance Industries Ltd, could not find a telecast partner for the event, with the semi-finals and finals being shown on Doordarshan.
Yet, despite this failure to market Indian football, the 17th edition of the premier domestic championship, the I-League, could be one of the most dramatic, with at least seven teams having a realistic shot at winning, and some exciting international players in action.
The title contenders for the I-League include the traditional heavyweights—defending champions Dempo, Churchill Brothers, Salgaocar, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal—plus dark horses Pune FC and the latest behemoths on the block, Prayag United.
The power equation in Indian football decisively swung Kolkata’s way early this season as the eastern clubs went on major signing sprees, spiriting away big names to the former Indian football capital. It remains to be seen whether this will translate into the kind of success that has eluded teams from Kolkata since East Bengal pocketed the National Football League (NFL, as it was called then) in 2003-04.
The biggest coup was pulled off by Prayag United, which netted Dempo’s top scorer for the past two seasons, Ranty Martins. They have reportedly splurged a record Rs.16-20 crore to additionally sign up India goalkeeper Subrata Paul and central defender Gourmangi Singh, 2006 Costa Rican World Cupper Carlos Hernández and other talents. However, their patchy performance in the ongoing Kolkata league and their failure in the Federation Cup shows that coach Sanjoy Sen has some way to go before he can engineer a purple patch for the team in purple.
Mohun Bagan too rocked the citadel when they snared sharpshooter Tolgay Ozbey from East Bengal. The Australian’s potential combination with the I-League’s highest-paid player Odafa Okolie (reportedly, over Rs.2 crore) could give opposing defenders sleepless nights. The management has tactfully kept its faith in coach Santosh Kashyap despite the club making a group stage exit in the Federation Cup—Steve Darby was summarily packed off after a similar failure last season. But if the Mariners, as they are called, falter in the opening rounds, as they have in the past, Kashyap may face a similar fate.
After two narrow misses, coach Trevor Morgan will hope that he is third-time lucky with East Bengal, which he has transformed into an incisive outfit. Morgan’s second Federation Cup win (albeit with home advantage) in three seasons should spur his League campaign. The Englishman, who has highlighted the virtues of continuity and the “stability breeds success” mantra inherent in the triumphant run of Dempo, has retained the core of his side and will rely on a solid defence marshalled by the pugnacious Uga Okpara, with a creative midfield with Mehtab Hussain lending the requisite muscle. The moot point is whether new spearhead Chidi Edeh, a failure at Salgaocar last season, can be as prolific as Ozbey, who fashioned many a famous win.
Aiming for a sixer
Consistent and cohesive Dempo, the defending champions, will mount their challenge for a record sixth title with a mix of stalwarts—Mahesh Gawli, Climax Lawrence, Clifford Miranda, Anthony Pereira, etc.—and upcoming talent. The key question is whether the new Ryuji Sueoka-Rohan Ricketts (a former Arsenal player) duo up front will combine with the same devastating effect that the Beto-Martins combo did for coach Armando Colaco in the days of yore.
Brazilian Beto (Roberto Mendes da Silva) is now in his second season with Churchill Brothers, and so is Gabonese striker Henry Antchouet. The Alemao family club have been further buttressed by the recruitment of two quality Lebanese players, Bilal Najjarin (defender) and Akram Moghrabi (striker). They certainly look poised to come good this year under coach Subhas Bhowmick, what with Dempo and East Bengal having the additional burden of competing in the AFC Cup (the winners of this Federation Cup and last year’s I-League qualify to play this Asian Football Confederation club tournament, in which each team will have to play six home and away matches).
Air India coach and former India international Godfrey Pereira certainly thinks the Goans are the team to beat after his team was thumped 0-4 in a Federation Cup pool match. “Other teams are good but Churchill Brothers are the favourites because they have the firepower and also a good defence, with Beto making all the difference,” Pereira, voted best player of the inaugural NFL, says.
Two-time champs Salgaocar too cannot be underestimated. Wily tactician Karim Bencherifa, who forged a winning combination with a bunch of new faces two seasons ago, will not have the pressure of defending the title. The team has not really fortified itself in the transfers but their two foreign recruits, Sean Rooney (Australia) and Ángel Guirado (Philippines), could make a difference. The Moroccan is among the four coaches in the fray who have won the title earlier but only Bhowmick and Pune FC coach Derrick Pereira have a chance of winning it with a different club, something nobody has achieved before.
The rest of the pack, including newly-promoted United Sikkim (the only side currently with a foreign goalkeeper, Tae Yoon) and ONGC, will be fighting to avoid relegation and be content to play the spoiler’s role by taking points off the title contenders.
On the cusp of change?
By next year, the Indian football scene may look different.
The contentious franchise-based league proposed by IMG-Reliance, put off to next September, may come into play and take the sheen off the I-League. If that happens, this may be the last season the I-League enjoys primacy in the Indian football calendar.
IMG-Reliance, it is said, hopes an Indian Premier League (IPL)-styled league featuring marquee international footballers will multiply eyeballs for the sport and help it recover its investment of Rs.700 crore over 15 years for Aiff’s marketing and telecast rights. The 2017 Fifa under-17 World Cup, which Aiff is bidding for with the approval of the Union government, could also present it with marketing and consultancy opportunities for building/upgrading stadia and other infrastructure.
The clubs, now united under the banner of the I-League Professional Football Clubs Association (IPFCA), are waiting for Aiff to come out with a blueprint on the franchise-based league.
It’s also supposed to finalize the roadmap for the conversion of the I-League into a separate legal entity, and a streamlined process of revenue sharing that will give clubs a stake in it. The clubs claim they have fulfilled their part of the bargain—by implementing the AFC’s licensing criteria, which includes their registration as separate companies and having fully professional players on contract. AFC approval helps clubs participate in its tournaments.
R.A.J. Gomes, IPFCA president, says he is waiting to hear from Aiff. “Most of the points we have raised have already been accepted in principle by Aiff and we expect they will come back to us on the others in due course,” Gomes, general secretary of Salgaocar FC, says on the phone.
On Wednesday, Aiff announced a three-year deal, contracting Ten Sports to broadcast the forthcoming I-League and the Federation Cup. Its general secretary, Kushal Das, said on the sidelines of the Federation Cup final that he hoped to “make the I-League much more vibrant and visible than it is now, but it will take a few more years”.
Mario Rodrigues is a senior sports journalist based in Mumbai.