Most Indian football fans have been fixated on distant Europe where, barring the intervention of any “hand of God", Manchester United, Barcelona and AC Milan are all but assured of the English, Spanish and Italian league titles, respectively.

But in India, the title race in the I-League that started in December is poised to go down to the wire, with four teams in the running for Indian football’s prized pennant. This is all happening with limited TV coverage, owing to the belated marketing and telecast deal the All India Football Federation clinched with the IMG-Reliance combine after the stand-off with Zee Sports.

Fantastic four: (clockwise from top) East Bengal (in red and gold) in a clash with Salgaocar last year; Dempo (in blue) fight for the ball with JCT in a recent I-League match and Churchill Brothers’ top scorer Odafa Okolie (in red) shoots for the goal. Photographs by Hindustan Times

The relegation battle is also being hotly contested, with at least six clubs hovering perilously in the “drop zone"—two teams from HAL, JCT, Air India, ONGC, Viva Kerala and Indian Arrows will be eventually demoted to the second division. Ironically, three-time champion Mohun Bagan (27 points) again find themselves among the stragglers.

That three of the four teams in title contention hail from Goa and only one from Kolkata also shows that in a major role reversal, India’s footballing sun now rises in the west rather than the east. The last time one of the big two from Kolkata won the title was seven seasons ago in 2003-04, when it used to be called the National Football League (NFL). It used to be the big three earlier, but the once mighty Mohammedan Sporting are not even among the 14 teams in the ongoing championship.

Surprising Salgaocar

Table toppers since the 14th round, Salgaocar are the surprise success story of the I-League, taking advantage of the depleted squads fielded by the big-budget clubs whose national players missed the initial months of the tournament due to their involvement in India’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup campaign. Having survived relegation last year, the middling club has transformed under Moroccan coach Karim Bencherifa, whose talent for man management, organization and grooming young talent has left Salgaocar poised to reclaim the title they won in 1998-99.

“Everything is in our hands and we are fully concentrated on the I-League unlike the other teams (Dempo and East Bengal are simultaneously playing in the AFC Cup)," the Moroccan tactician said over the phone from Goa when queried about his side’s title prospects. “We are confident that we can still carry out our mission and we will hang in there, but it will be tough."

When asked if his approach needed some tweaking in view of two defeats in the last three rounds, Bencherifa, whose name has surfaced in the media as a possible successor to national coach Bob Houghton, retorted, “The team is still playing good football and there is nothing to change."

Foreign connection

Sharpshooters: (left) Dempo’s prolific Nigerian forward Ranty Martins; and East Bengal’s new Australian spearhead Tolgay Ozbey.

All four teams will be dependent on their foreign sharpshooters to see them through—the talismanic Nigerian Odafa Okolie (Churchill Brothers), top scorer in the previous four editions, Nigerian Ranty Martins (Dempo), East Bengal’s new Australian spearhead Tolgay Ozbey and the Japanese-Ghanaian combine of Ryuji Seoka and Yakubu Yusif at Salgaocar.

East Bengal were comfortably leading the field in their quest for the treble (they have the local league and Federation Cup in the bag) till the midway stage; a tie in the “Kolkata derby" against rivals Mohun Bagan and a shocking loss to then last-placed ONGC allowed Salgaocar to nose ahead. But the defensive performance of the red-gold outfit has been exemplary and they have conceded the least number of goals in the I-League though their strike tally lags behind their three rivals.

East Bengal and Dempo both have quality players all around the park which Salgaocar lack.

Dempo will have to bounce back psychologically after their 0-9 rout by Uzbek club Nasaf Qarshi in the AFC Cup. Churchill Brothers are at a disadvantage simply because they have two games less in hand.

So who’s going to clinch it?

Hunt for national coach

The premature ouster of coach Bob Houghton has prompted the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to begin the search for his successor. One of the names that have come up as a replacement for the Cape Town-based Englishman is Moroccan coach Karim Bencherifa, whose familiarity with Indian conditions (with Churchill Brothers, Mohun Bagan and now Salgaocar) could work in his favour.

Asked to comment on this, Bencherifa says: “This is pure media speculation as no AIFF official has contacted me so far. But the media here is well informed. I am flattered and honoured that my name is being linked to the job. I have spent five years here and have an emotional attachment to India, which is like my second home now. At the same time, I am extremely happy with Salgaocar and the way the club is run and how I am treated."

Considering that the AIFF has set “possession football" as the benchmark for the new national coach in contrast to the ungainly “long ball" tactics adopted by Houghton at the Asian Cup, the national federation could well look at Dempo coach Armando Colaco too— Dempo’s “possession football" style of play over the years has impressed both pundits and plebeians alike.

Mario Rodrigues is a senior sports writer based in Mumbai.

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