Indian National League (I-League) 2011-12 Season Review
With the Indian domestic football season having come to a close in May, Debojyoti Chakraborty summarizes the nation’s top-tier football league
The top-tier football league in India, known as the I-League, came to a close in May and Dempo Sports Club won the 16th edition leaving behind 13 others vying for the honour. The tournament started in 1996-97 as the National Football League to bring in professionalism in an age-old and dying Indian football system. It may seem contrasting but the national team was at its highest ever FIFA ranking of 94 at the start of 1996 but has seen an all-time low of 165 in April, 2012. However, football remains a hugely popular sport in India, more so in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, where it is treated as a religion. Let us start our journey showcasing a recap of the season that just got over.
At the start of the league in the fag end of October last year, the big boys grabbed all the headlines. Two clubs from Kolkata, the eternal capital of the game in India, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan were favourites along with the two teams from Goa, the new power centre of Indian football, Dempo and Churchill Brothers. Dempo set the pace early with an all-win record in their first seven matches which included a 5-0 thrashing of Mohun Bagan. They were first beaten by another club from Goa - Churchill Brothers who put up some fine performances – they defeated Shillong Lajong FC 6-0 and Sporting Club de Goa 5-0 – but lacked consistency. On the other hand, East Bengal looked to follow the leaders closely until they were held to a scoreless draw by the lowly Pailan Arrows. This started a patchy stage for the men in Red and Gold as they could only manage four victories in their next 10 encounters. Their archrival Mohun Bagan had a roller coaster ride. After being humiliated by Dempo they themselves netted five against Mumbai FC in an away match. They defeated title contenders East Bengal and Churchill and followed that up by dropping points against mid-tabler Prayag United and struggling Shillong Lajong FC.
As the second half of the fixtures started, teams settled down rather well. Teams vying for the championship got the results they wanted as the relatively smaller teams started to run out of gas. But there was too much of a gap at the top created by now and Dempo maintained the pole position throughout the second half with their superb squad. They are an example of a settled side, the team management and to officials have been there for some time now and their core group of players have remained more or less the same too. This is so rare in this part of the world, but manager Armando Colaco might have to say something to this as he went on to win a record five League titles with Dempo. There was a small hiccup when they lost to Pune FC in Round 19 but Dempo ensured neither of their competitors can get a sniff in by quickly regaining the composure.
By the time Dempo faced East Bengal in Round 23, other contenders had already faded away. Dempo maintained their 6-point gap over the Red and Gold brigade with a scoreless draw and were almost certain of the title with only three matches to play. Results elsewhere became meaningless even though Mohun Bagan thrashed Shillong Lajong FC 6-1 in the return leg and Sporting Clube de Goa thumped HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited Sporting Club) 7-0.
The league was a classic example of a bunch of teams fighting it out. There was not much difference between them as all the top half teams lost nearly equal number of matches (5 or 6). What set Dempo apart is their incredible ability to get a result when the game was all set for a draw. They could not enforce a result in only three of their matches – this number is twice better than any of their challengers. On the other end of the table Pailan Arrows and HAL were easy hunting grounds for others as both the teams struggled to get a win under their belt. HAL was nothing more than a punching bag as they finished rock bottom with eight points in 26 games and a negative goal difference of 49. Pailan Arrows, the U-19 team fielded by All India Football Federation (AIFF), is probably the only team across all the domestic leagues worldwide to be guaranteed a stay in the top flight irrespective of their league standing. So, even though they finished 13th, they stayed up and poor Chirag United Kerala, finishing 12th, was relegated.
The league produced over 500 goals, close to an impressive average of three goals per match. But with the modern era icon Baichung Bhutia in the twilights of his career and no other players showing that much promise, the top goal-scoring chart was dominated by the foreign recruits. In I-League a team can field four foreign players which should include one player from the AFC region. There is a strong influence of Africa in Indian football as they are the main supply line for foreign players. Ranti Martins from Nigeria topped the charts with 32 goals playing for Dempo. Following him was his country man Odafa Okolie of Mohun Bagan with 26 goals. Tolgey Ozbey from Australia netted 18 for East Bengal to finish third. C.S. Sabeeth of Pailan Arrows was the top Indian goal scorer with only nine goals who could feature even in the overall top 10 list.
On the other end of the field, Indian shot stoppers put up a decent fight and Pune FC goalkeeper Abhra Mondal, who was let go by East Bengal, emerged as the top performer in the absence of their star man, India number one Subrata Paul. Uga Okapara from Nigeria of East Bengal and Mahesh Gowli of Dempo put up some brave displays at the heart of their teams’ defence. And in the midfield area, the honour goes to Pierre Douhou from Ivory Coast of Pune FC.
The I-league has grown in numbers over the years – be it in terms of number of teams participating or the money spent by the sponsors. But the standard of football very rarely lives up to expectations. Still in this millennium, some players have started showing their aspirations for trying their luck abroad in more prestigious European leagues. Most recent of them all is the current national team captain Sunil Chhetri who has been roped in by Sporting Clube de Portugal. This will only help the Sleeping Giant of Asia to come into its own in the football world.
 The same was held in May 2007 too. Since April though, the team has moved two spots higher and holds a current ranking of 163