Calcutta Football League – Rise of a New Star Amidst Problems Galore

After a thrilling competition last season, this year’s Calcutta Football League turned out to be a pretty one-sided affair although the supporters of East Bengal club are not complaining. However, the league also taught us a few important lessons and will possibly be remembered for the rise of a star player. Kaushik Saha elaborates here at Goalden Times.

Calcutta Football League 2014 was settled on the very last day, with three teams in contention for the crown. This year has been a tame affair onfield, with more drama happening off the field. After Mohun Bagan’s I-League win in 2014–15, this year’s Calcutta Football League started with a lot of promise. There was widespread anticipation that they might finally be able to wrest the crown from East Bengal after five seasons. However, financial troubles forced Mohun Bagan to loan several of their first team players to various ISL teams from the beginning of the season itself.

East Bengal brought in a new coach, Maidan veteran Biswajit Bhattacharya, after a poor finish in I-League. Bhattacharya went about his task quietly, along with his assistants Debjit Ghosh, Sanjay Majhi,and Sammy Omollo. The club also built a good team comprising local players and foreigners. The jackpot they managed was Do Dong Hyun, a South Korean U-23 player, who almost single handedly won East Bengal a few matches in the league.

As a result, East Bengal won the CFL for a record sixth consecutive time, the second time they achieved the same in their and the league’s history (the last one came amidst a glorious run between 1970–75). They also remained unbeaten, the first time this has happened since 2000. However, the path was not exactly rosy as the club began the tournament with a lackluster 1-0 victory, followed by a goalless draw. In two other matches the team was trailing by 0-2, but went on to win eventually. The league saw some spectacular goals— Do Dong scored a few of them, along with Mehtab Hossain(East Bengal), Abinash Ruidas (East Bengal), Azharuddin Mallik (Mohun Bagan), and Christopher Chizoba (Kalighat). Do Dong also scored a fantastic hattrick en route to becoming the top scorer in the league. Mohammedan Sporting beat Police AC 7-0, but their prominence as the third “big team” from Kolkata has long subsided. They barely managed to be fifth in the league this year.

The biggest incidents, however, happened off the field. This includes a major gaffe by Mohun Bagan, where they violated the Governing body of Indian Football Association’s rules by not having a U-23 player on the field. They subsequently lost points because of this. Even in the match against Army XI, which they lost 0-1 (that virtually ended their title challenge), they had a chance to take three points as Army XI had flouted jersey rules.  Army XI eventually ended up becoming the runner up through a series of good performances, leaving a demotivated Mohun Bagan far behind. Mohun Bagan finished a forgettable campaign in the third place (the first time in 13 years) behind Army XI. They had the same number of points as Southern Samity, but were ahead on goal difference.

The biggest incidents, however, happened off the field. This includes a major gaffe by Mohun Bagan, where they violated the Governing body of Indian Football Association’s rules by not having a U-23 player on the field.

A match between Southern Samity and Tollygunge Agragami, which Tollygunge won 4-0 and saved themselves from relegation, was allegedly under the spotlight and was briefly investigated by the IFA—the governing body of football in West Bengal. Another goalless match involving Tollygunge and Aryan came under investigation too. The result ensured that the Subhash Bhowmick-coached Tollygunge stay in the top flight of the league. There were issues of matches being washed out due to rain, and some, including a crucial match between Aryan and Mohun Bagan, were halted due to poor light as well.

However, there were a lot of positives too. On display was the pure passion of East Bengal supporters, as they sensed what they now call the historical “Hexa”.They crowded each match their club played, irrespective of venues. The icing on the cake was, of course, the Kolkata Derby played at Salt Lake Stadium. East Bengal beat Mohun Bagan 4-0, the largest margin ever in a CFL Derby.The match was attended by more than 80,000 fans (East Bengal had also beaten Mohun Bagan 4-0 in a 1936 Kolkata Derby match). There were serpentine queues for tickets, and crowds braved the rains to watch their favourite team play. This was reminiscent of the last decades of the past century, when Satellite TV had not invaded our homes. The TV Channel which beamed almost all the matches live claimed that this match had the highest TRP for a single event on that particular channel, with close to 10 lakh people tuning in. The most heartening thing about the league was to see a Kolkata Derby with two Bengali coaches in charge after almost a decade. The Amal Dutta–PK Banerjee era may just be back.

Kolkata: East Bengal player Dong Hyun Do celebrates after scoring a goal during a CFL League match against Mohun Bagan A.C. in Kolkata, on Sep 6, 2015. East Bengal won. Score 4-0. (Photo: Kuntal Chakrabarty/IANS)
Kolkata: East Bengal player Dong Hyun Do celebrates after scoring a goal during a CFL League match against Mohun Bagan A.C. in Kolkata, on Sep 6, 2015. East Bengal won. Score 4-0. (Photo: Kuntal Chakrabarty/IANS)

The Korean revolution

When East Bengal signed a little-known South Korean U-23 player under their Asian quota, very few seemed to have heard of him. Do Dong Hyun has played in the A-League (he holds the record for being the youngest foreigner to play there) and the J-League. He has also been a part of the Korea U-20 team and even the Indian Super League, but he was a little-known entity in Indian footballing circles. However, after a terrific 1.5 months, in which Dong almost single handedly won East Bengal the league, he is now being seen as a successor to the great Majid Baskar of Iran.He has been feted as, arguably, the best foreigner to have played in India in terms of pure footballing skills and seems to be a refreshing change from the big-bodied Africans who dominated the Kolkata football scene for the past three decades. Though it’s still early days and Dong has not faced much competition so far, the Korean (recently selected for the South Korea U-23 team) has shown glimpses that with a set and stable team, he can do wonders. No wonder East Bengal extended his contract till the 2018–19 seasons.

However, having said that, Dong (who top scored with 12 goals in 10 matches) has still a long way to go to become the next Majid. He must build a better physique and must develop a habit of controlling the game from the midfield. His speed, dribbling, free kicks, and big-match temperament are a matter of no concern for his team. However, it can be a concern for the opponents. In fact, this year Dong single handedly made sure that the poor performance of other foreigners cutting across clubs was not noticed at all. Here is hoping that Dong can have a long and successful stint in Indian football and can enrich the Kolkata football scene, maybe even bringing a few I Leagues to the state.

The solution to the AIFF conundrum

Recently, AIFF announced a possibility of the merger of the ISL and the I-League because of dwindling crowds in the latter. While they did not specify the details, it was said that lack of viewership in I-League was the major reason for such a move. My sincere request to the powers that be would be to have a look at the recent East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan Derby at Salt Lake Stadium, where more than 80,000 people turned up to watch a match that was of little consequence in a minor league. Why doesn’t AIFF arrange a series of East Bengal–Mohun Bagan derbies across cities where the two clubs have a healthy fan following? Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, Guwahati, and Siliguri can be possible venues. This will ensure that (a) the two clubs don’t fall on hard times and have to loan players out, and (b) a revived interest in Indian football by fans of these two clubs. This is because this rivalry is not ordinary.It’s a battle of egos, identities, and cultures—the three things that drive a human being. It’s also the only rivalry that made the top 10 list of major football rivalries from a nation ranked below 100 in the FIFA list.

Image Source – PTI

Philippe de Ridder Interview

Philippe de Ridder is a well-known name in Indian football circuit as he has been managing clubs, becoming Technical Director and playing (yes, precisely in this order) all around the country. Debojyoti Chakraborty of Goalden Times got a chance to take sneak peek into the inner world of this Belgian who has made India his second home. Here is the first part.

Being an ardent fan of East Bengal, one of the most famous clubs in India, I am no stranger to Philippe de Ridder. In fact, I had come across him on couple of occasions at airports but could not manage to engage him in conversation. Later when I finally got an opportunity to interact with him I very hesitantly asked him for a chit-chat session. And thankfully, the generous man did not disappoint.

PIDR

I wanted to start the conversation by asking him about his early days – his first experience with a football, his first clubs and his dreams.

Early Days

DC : What is your first memory of an encounter with a football?

PdR : It started really early to be frank. When I was born, my father had put a football in my arms and it was like love at first sight. I was sleeping with it when others were going to bed with a teddy bear.

DC : Where did you start your journey as a footballer?

PdR : My uncles, my grandfather and my father were all football players and coaches, and they trained me since the time I started walking. Then my father’s friend, who was a top Belgian football player himself, Ronald Devleegelaer, registered me and his son in a youth tournament organized by Racing White Daring Molenbeek (RWDM).I was 7-8 years old then. Some scouts spotted me there and I was soon a part of the club.

DC : What was you preferred playing position?

PdR : I was fortunate enough to play in all the positions barring the one under the posts, but my favourite position in a 4-3-3 system was that of a number 7 (central midfielder) and  in a 4-4-2 system was that of a number 10 (attacking midfielder).However I have played as a central defender (a la Fabio Cannavaro) and right back (a la Roberto Carlos – think he meant Cafu here) in the national team across different age groups.

DC : Who was your favorite player during your growing up years?

PdR : As an attacker, it had to be Johan Cruyff. But on the defensive side of the game, I always looked up to another Oranje, Johan Boskamp as one of my godfathers in football.He played in RWDM and became the first foreigner to win the Golden Shoe in Belgium. I was part of the Boskamp Boys, a group of talented youth footballers he had handpicked and trained personally. Apart from being my hero, he had a telling influence on my whole life.

By this time I had a fair idea about the jovial nature of the man. So I was curious to know about his relationship with one of the most iconic figures among children and youngsters across the World and also with his friends from his younger days.

DC : Are you a fan of Tintin?

PdR : Absolutely! On top of that he’s Belgian and from Brussels, just like me (laughs). He must have influenced me a lot. His adventures took him all over the world – to America, Africa, China, Peru, Ecuador, India – and so did mine(smiles).

Absolutely! On top of that he’s Belgian and from Brussels, just like me (laughs). He must have influenced me a lot. His adventures took him all over the world – to America, Africa, China, Peru, Ecuador, India – and so did mine(smiles).

DC : Which Tintin story is your favorite and any particular reason for the choice?

PdR : The Blue Lotus, for its graphical research, style and energy. Also, maybe because of my love for Asia in general.

DC : Which character, if any, do you think influenced you the most in your childhood?

PdR : Tintin, Robin Hood, Geoffrey de Peyrac (Angélique, Marquise des Anges fame) and Johan Boskamp.

DC : You have played with quite a few footballers in your youth who have gone on to make it big afterwards like Patrick Vervoort, Marc Degryse, Stéphane Demol and Filip De Wilde. Can you share some of your fond memories on and off the field?

PdR : On the field, it has to be the qualification for the Under 18 European Championship in England in 1983. I also had a memorable encounter against the Dutch side featuring the great Marco van Basten – we proudly came out with a stalemate.  But I have had bad days as well, none so painful than the day I missed a penalty against Ireland.

Couple of years back I caught up with Stéphane Demol (an eminent Beligian footballer in the mid 80s) who had just taken over from Sven-Göran Erikssonfor BECT ero Sasana, a top division club in Thailand. We had a blast that night reliving our old memories.

Then I happened to meet Moussa Dembéléat the wedding of Faris Haroun, who was one of the first boys I had brought into my academy in Brussels (1994).Patrick Vervoort was Moussa’s agent then and Moussa told Haroun’s father that I was the toughest defender ever in Belgium according to Patrick.Haroun’s father was surprised as I am known to be a fine technician and tough does not go well with my personality (smiles).

Actually I thought the interview would be over by now. But de Ridder was very forthcoming and fortunately for me, he seemed to have opened up. So, I gathered a little more courage and pushed the envelope a bit further to enter one of the grimmest chapters of his life.

The injury and aftermath

DC  : You had captained Belgium in various age group levels till U20 but could not make it big after that due to serious injuries. Do you think had the injury happened 30 years later in 2015, with the advanced medical attention available, you would have been able to make a comeback?

PdR : Definitely yes. If it had happened today, I would have had a better operation, a better recovery process, better post-injury training, better psychological follow up, more professional people surrounding me and still be able to play at the top level in Europe.

DC : How did the injury happen?

PdR : I had two big injuries. First one was in my right ankle – it was due to my tough tackling nature that I was involved in a lot of contact and received a lot of bruises. Also, referees back then were not so protective of the players and I remember sometimes receiving more than 10 dangerous tackles from the opponent without a single warning from the referee to the players who were purposefully going for my leg.

Also I missed the guidance of a protective coach during my growing up years. Some coaches didn’t want to rest me when I was slightly injured; they convinced me to keep playing. I even played sometimes with injections. When you keep doing that for years, your ligaments become more fragile and an operation is the only solution to put your ligaments “tidier”.

The second injury came in a match when I blocked a guy from shooting towards the goal. It was a big, huge, powerful guy and I had blocked him with the inside of the foot but his shot was so powerful that it broke all the ligaments of my knee.

After that, doctors told me that I should consider myself lucky if I could walk again normally.

DC : Have you spoken to the offender after the incident?

PdR : No. It wasn’t the fault of the player or mine, destiny maybe.

DC : Did you ever think of a comeback, a last hurrah?

PdR : A division 2 team once offered me a trial. I did not agree – It had to be the first division or nothing.

A division 2 team once offered me a trial. I did not agree – It had to be the first division or nothing.

But destiny had the last laugh here as well. Much later, when I was 30, I had to play a couple of games with a Division 4 team in Belgium. I needed that money to help my three little brothers as my parents got divorced and I had to take care of my brothers for six months.  Incidentally, the coach was Hermanvan Holsbeeck, the R.S.C. Anderlecht General Manager.

DC : How do you see life in light of your injury? I mean have you found a new perspective to it or has the injury changed you as a person in anyway?

PdR : Maybe all these injury made me a more attentive coach, protecting some players instead of forcing them to play with injury or under injections.

For example:  recently my top and only striker had an ankle injury.I did not have any other good striker to replace him and it was a very important match for us. I could have influenced him to play, and he would have played, taking the risk to aggravate his injury and potentially get ruled out for the rest of the championship. Or even worse, he could have got a big injury like I had,forcing him out of the game for months or years. I chose not to select him for the match. We lost 2-0. I have no regrets about this defeat. We got four clear-cut chances to score and if he was there we could have scored at least twice and come back with a point. But I don’t mind that – I just reminded the club that we didn’t have enough funds to recruit a second good striker, it is not right to point fingers at others.

DC : How difficult was it post injury, specially accepting the fact that you won’t be able to fulfill your promise as a footballer?

PdR : Very hard.I had to go through two very difficult years of my life to find some new objectives. I couldn’t sleep well; my head was full of questions as I was born to be a football star.

DC : Were you always interested in a coaching career or you just wanted to be involved with the game after a premature exit?

PdR : No, I didn’t think about becoming a coach. I was lucky to find a job as graphic designer in a top elite management company called MCE – Management Centre Europe – in Brussels, where I met some of the world’s best management and marketing speakers for a period of five years. It helped me a lot in my future football coaching and management career. It was only when I was 27 years old – I was in USA then – that I started to get interested in youth coaching.

The following is the most fascinating part of this conversation – the East Bengal chapter. This is a phase of de Ridder’s life I had followed closely. And now I had the opportunity to ask him some questions that I always wanted to ask for the last 10 years.

Kolkata Calling

DC : How did East Bengal happen?

PdR : For my 40th birthday I wanted to travel to Asia to present the 360 CFT (Creative Football Training) that I had already conceptualized and successfully implemented for seven years in my academy in Brussels. In fact, the results were so good that I wanted to explore it even further. That is when I met Arunava, one of the starters of the site Indianfootball.com in Koln and explained my project to him. He insisted that Indian Football Association(IFA)would be interested to see what it was all about. So I came to India and gave a presentation at the IFA academy at Haldia. I think it went pretty well.

Coincidentally, East Bengal were also looking for a coach in the middle of the season and they called me for an interview. I had not heard about East Bengal or Mohun Bagan (their fierce city rivals) before and had no clue about their huge fan base.I was offered the job and I accepted it to experiment my method on a full team.

I’ll tell you an interesting incident that happened during the same time. I played an exhibition match in Kolkata, Salt Lake, and was offered a player position in a Kolkata team United Sports Club (then known as Eveready Association) after the match. I felt honored by the proposition but was not sure that my leg could withstand the pressure of a full season. So, I took up the East Bengal coaching job.

DC : Can you share the experience of a Derby win – have you ever witnessed such a massive and passionate crowd anywhere else?

PdR : The first derby (on 8th April, 2006) was a really extra-ordinary moment of my life, especially because we won it by 3-1 with some unknown players at the time like Gouranga Duta, Anupam Sarkar, Jayanta Senalong withthe legendary Bhaichung Bhutia who was not at his peak anymore. I had taken some strong decisions for that match – like dropping Mike Okoro, who didn’t want to train but was a big star then with a huge salary.I must admit that I had taken a lot of risks that day but I felt full of joy after winning the game. I believe that God wanted it that way. Fans that day were fabulous and players did respond well tothe 360 CFT training. It was one of thosemoments that you’ll never forget in life.I must say that the Kolkata derby is very special in its own way. There are other big derbies in the world but the Kolkata one has his own character, I would recommend it to any football lover.

DC : How much do you miss East Bengal, Kolkata, the food and Salt Lake City center (a place you were often spotted)?

PdR : Kolkata will always be a special place for me as it gave me all these great derby moments and fame. Kolkata people are emotional and have been always good to me, except 3-4 people lol (laughs). I still havegot some good friends there in the football and art world. I miss the city sometimes but on the pure footballing aspect,the clubs and the players have to grow.  Players are good but not good enough for international standard. Whose duty is it to produce better players? Why has it not been done yet?

The football education from grassroot level to the A-team has to undergo a serious transformation. Lot of people “talk” of giving good football education, but they only “talk”.The reality isquite different. Besides, good role models are important for youngsters when they grow up but sadly there are not many in that part of the world.

The football education from grassroot level to the A-team has to undergo a serious transformation. Lot of people “talk” of giving good football education, but they only “talk”

City Center, Salt Lake, was one of my favorite places to hang around as I was living close to it. Good food, good movies, good small coffee bar.

DC : Why do you think Kolkata clubs are not doing well enough in the I League despite the fervent enthusiasm for the game in the region?

PdR : Well,Mohun Bagan are doing well this year as they have been in the pole position for much of the season and should win it from here.

I think football has changed a lot from the 70’s and 80’s. Some people runningthe Kolkata teams didn’t pick up the evolution and were still thinking and taking decisions like they did in the 70’s and 80’s. The basics of today’s professional football were not there at the time.It’s improved in the last couple of years but it will take some time to get things realigned with rest of the world.

 
Second and final part of the interview can be find here.
 
 

Calcutta Football League 2014: A Review

  It is not often that a local Indian league becomes the main topic of discussion in football circles, especially with several high profile global leagues, a newly launched football super league in India, Euro Cup qualifiers, and international friendlies in full swing. Kaushik Saha takes a look at one of the most exciting finishes to the Calcutta Football League in recent times, which revived interest in the moribund tournament.

 
In the past decade and a half (or more), the Calcutta Football League (which has undergone several name and format changes, mainly due to organisational reasons) has become the epitome of inefficiency, poor management, and a passing-on-the-buck syndrome on part of the organizers—the Indian Football Association (IFA). There have been occasions in the not-too-distant-past when teams forced changes in schedules at will, matches were played in random between India’s top flight national football league matches, and tournaments started in July one year and finished in May the next year. Long, erratic, and irrational schedules meant that the smaller teams were never in a state to compete with the Big Two—East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. This led to a loss of interest among fans to such an extent that even the most sought-after Derby matches between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan were played in half-empty stadiums. There was little or no sponsorship, little media coverage outside West Bengal, and very little attention from stakeholders like advertisers and TV channels.
 
However, all this changed this year. The much-maligned IFA Secretary, Utpal Ganguly, and his team made several sweeping changes to the schedule and format. First, the double-leg system was done away with. Just 11 teams were chosen to play in order to reduce the number of meaningless matches. The League was scheduled to finish in a span of one-and-a-half months, before the start of any other major national level tournament elsewhere. A TV partner was roped in, and all matches started at the same time of the day (unlike earlier gimmicks, where Derby matches started later in the evening) so that the maximum number of matches were telecast live (actually 39 out of 55 matches were telecast live, including matches between lowly ranked teams).  

All the above had a positive impact. The single-leg format and short span of time for completion of the tournament meant that the smaller teams had to spend less money on training and the teams could gel together. This had the desired effect, as some of them—Army XI, Southern Samity, and, of course, Tollygunge Agragami, gave the big two a run for their money. Mohammedan Sporting also managed to beat both, something no team had done in the past two decades. Another very interesting development came about, which is expected to have a very positive effect on Bengal football in the long run.    

The Indian Super League, scheduled to begin on October 12, enforced the rule that players selected to play for the various teams cannot play any competitive football from September 1 onwards.  This led to the major teams releasing most players from their first team by August 31, and, as a result, forced to play reserves or young players. This had a positive effect on both the players, who got a rare chance to prove themselves, and the teams who found out that in case of injury to their main stars, they actually have players to fall back upon. The emergence of such new players, most of whom are home grown and trained in local academies, augurs well for Bengal football as these youngsters look to revive lost glory in Santosh trophy.  

This season was also the battle of the coaches and technical directors—the stars, the former players, the maidan veterans, the wily foxes and experienced hands. Armando Colaco, Subrata Bhattacharya, Subhash Bhowmick, Chima Okorie, Raghu Nandi, and his son Rajdeep all contributed in their own ways in making this League a thrilling one. Then, there were the marquee players—Pierre Boya of Mohun Bagan who has played in the UEFA Champions’ League and Leo Bertos of East Bengal who had represented New Zealand in the 2010 FIFA World Cup—who added the necessary color and spice,and attracted a number of sponsors as well as eyeballs. The best part of the entire League was that it managed to get the crowds back to the stadiums—Yuva Bharati Krirangan (Salt Lake) and Barasat Stadium.

An exciting finish, a string of upsets, and a major comeback

 
The League began with a bang, when, on the opening day (August 10), Mohammedan Sporting defeated the four-time defending champions East Bengal 1-0 via a wonderful strike by youngster Imran Khan and   some superb goalkeeping by Arnab Dassharma (reminding viewers and reporters of the Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa in the Mexico vs. Brazil match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup). Some dogged defending by Lal Daniela and Sunil Kumar ensured their best start to a season in five years. Their maverick coach, Fuja Tope, then plotted the defeat of Mohun Bagan a few days later. However, towards the end of season, a series of setbacks—notably, defeats to Army XI and Tollygunge Agragami (an eight-goal thriller where Tollygunge won 5-3) laid their hopes to rest.  

East Bengal, after an ordinary beginning, managed to beat BNR, and then had a game called off against Chima Okorie-coached Police AC due to bad light. Their season plunged into further misery after they managed a 1-1 draw vs. the lowly ranked Kalighat, despite playing World Cupper Leo Bartois. However, the arrival of Nigerian Striker Dudu Omagbemi and his partnership with Ranty Martins, one of Indian football’s most prolific strikers of this century, changed their destiny. The duo teamed up well and scored at will as they led East Bengal to a Derby win vs. Mohun Bagan, which was followed by winning the title. Dudu (with two hattricks) also emerged the top goal scorer along with Koko Sakibo of Tollygunge Agragami (though, it must be noted, Dudu played four matches less).   This title is the fifth one in a row for East Bengal (they are the only team to have won the League in five  consecutive years, and that too on two separate occasions. In 1970-75, they won six times at a stretch, a feat which included their performance in the year 1972 when they won the League without conceding a goal) and represents a victory of the idea of the “youth first” strategy of coach Armando Colaco who had declared long back that he views the league as a launchpad for the I-League. It was a brilliant team effort, where seniors like Mehtab Hossain and Joaquim Abranches led the way for youngsters like Abinash Ruidas  to take over.

eb-vs-tolly-13
Prohlad Roy’s goal against Tollygunge Agragami on the Judgement Day

Arch rivals Mohun Bagan played good football for  five out of six weeks, and won eight out of ten matches. However, one bad week, where they lost to both Mohammedan Sporting and East Bengal in a span of eight days, put their hopes to rest. However, Mohun Bagan can take heart from the fact that they may finally have assimilated a team which can win a trophy for them after a few barren years. Kingshuk Debnath and Shouvik Ghosh have looked solid in defense, Balwant Singh has emerged as a prolific scorer, and, after a few initial hiccups, Pierre Boya is finally starting to show his class. Lalkamal Bhowmick has been a calming influence in the midfield and Shilton Paul has led the team well from under the bar.   The Mohun Bagan Technical Director this season is maidan veteran Subhash Bhowmick, while the team’s coach is Shankarlal Chakrabarty, a wily customer of many a big match himself. The man often (dis)credited with having ended Shankarlal’s football career, and one of the best foreigners to have ever played in the Kolkata maidans, Chima Okorie, coached the Police AC team this year (after being associated for a short while with Mumbai FC and Mohun Bagan). The team started off well, but a 1–6 defeat to Kalighat MSC made Chima resign in tears.  

Raghu Nandi, a former East Bengal player and a veteran coach who is credited with building teams from scratch, coached Southern Samity this season—a team that played good football, especially against East Bengal. Raghu Nandi joined Southern Samity after being unceremoniously forced to resign from Tollygunge Agragami, soon after he led them to credible results in the 2013-14 season (Subrata Bhattacharya was made his boss at a short notice). His son Rajdeep made his coaching debut this season for Aryan. Another team that deserves a special mention is SAI (East Zone), who, playing without a foreigner, played well against Mohun Bagan and nearly held them to a draw. They were also impressive in a 4-1 defeat of BNR, which was led by youngster Azharuddin Mallick.    

Finally, a word and two about the two teams responsible for taking the league to the wire—Army XI and Tollygunge Agragami. Army XI is a team composed of 20-25-year olds who are engaged in service with the Indian Army. The team does not employ foreigners. However, they put up an impressive show, especially Anthony Chetri in defense and Arjun Tudu in attack. They led the League table till the seventh round, having chalked up impressive victories over teams like Mohammedan, SAI, Southern Samity, and Aryan. They fought East Bengal on an even keel before losing 1-4, courtesy a Dudu Hattrick, and ran Mohun Bagan close, before a Balwant hattrick sunk them. They finished fourth eventually, their best-ever finish in nearly three decades.    

Tollygunge Agragami was coached by the wily Subrata Bhattacharya, considered widely to be one of the best coaches in India. They began with a 0-1 loss to Mohun Bagan, but chalked up impressive wins to lead the League on goal difference going into the last set of matches. They also ended up conceding the least number of goals, courtesy a solid defense led by youngsters like Shanku Guha, Goutam Thakur, and Sheikh Habibur.  In fact, six of the seven goals they conceded were scored by East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and Mohammedan Sporting. Their 5-3 win against Mohammedan was considered the match of the tournament.  They also had a strong attack led by joint top scorer Koko and Daniel Bidemi, and a defense marshalled by Bello Razzaq.  

The League went down to the wire, and, on the last day, the scenario was such that any of the following three—Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, and Tollygunge Agragami—could have won the League. If they had managed to beat East Bengal, Tollygunge would have been the first team outside East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and Mohammedan Sporting to win the CFL since Eastern Railway FC, captained by P. K. Banerjee, did it in 1958. A draw in the last match would have seen Mohun Bagan win the League, the first incidence when one of the Big Three would have won the league despite having lost to the other two. However, East Bengal held their nerves, and beat Tollygunge Agragami 2-1. The winner was scored by Ranty Martins, but it was Prohlad Roy, the scorer of the first goal, who stole the limelight.  

Prohlad Roy is one among a bunch of youngsters who benefitted from the Indian Soccer League. This is not because they have been directly selected to play for the League, but because they were mostly taken off the reserve team and selected to play for the first team after the regulars were selected to play for ISL and their contract forbade them to take part in the CFL post September 1. Roy, along with players like Abinash Ruidas, Abhishek Das (all East Bengal), Sukhen Dey and Shouvik Ghosh (Mohun Bagan) represent a new breed of local players who can go far if given the right opportunities. Given the fact that Santosh trophy is now an under-23 tournament, Bengal, led by these youngsters has a good team now which can bring back the glory days. Credit must be given to Colaco and Bhowmick for giving these youngsters the chance to develop. If one needs any confirmation as to the talent of these youngsters, check out this world class goal by Prohlad Roy.

A special mention must be made of the newly promoted club, Pathachakra. After United Sports was disbanded following financial reasons, their coach Nabab Bhattacharya joined a second-division team called Pathachakra. With limited resources and local players (most of whom are under the age of 21), Nabab led the team to second-division glory.

The good, the bad and the ugly

 
The good:  

 
IFA has extensively used lady referees and lineswomen this time. This is to bring down crowd, official, and player violence towards match officials after results or decisions. A star referee this time has been Kanika Barman, a diminutive Government servant who did an excellent job and kept her cool, even in volatile situations. After winning the League, East bengal coach Armando Colaco dedicated the League to the Kashmir flood victims and appealed for donations from club supporters.  

 
The bad:  

Despite all the efforts by IFA, violence by officials and crowds has not really gone away. Mohammedan officials and supporters physically assaulted referee Pranjal Banerjee after the former’s 3-5 defeat to Tollygunge Agragami, as they felt they have been denied a penalty. East Bengal supporters and Southern Samity coach Raghu Nandi were also involved in a similar incident after East Bengal’s narrow 1-0 victory. Subrata Bhattacharya continued allegations that officials had favored East Bengal in the title-deciding match.  

The ugly  
 
Endurance James of BNR made ugly sexist gestures at referee Kanika Barman in their 1-2 defeat at the hands of Mohun Bagan. There were widespread calls from former players, the State Commission For Women, and other football officials to ban James or even deport him, but nothing happened. BNR simply looked away as their best player was involved. Even the lady downplayed the incident, possibly under pressure from the Referee Association and political parties.

 

 

James Endurance vs. Kanika Barman
James Endurance vs. Kanika Barman

Team of the tournament

All said and done, this was an exciting tournament, which ended on a high note for a lot of stakeholders—the officials who were paid well due to better sponsorship, the IFA, the TV channel which telecast the matches live, the players, and, of course, the crowds   The team of the tournament is as follows (strictly based on performances in the CFL and keeping in mind that only two foreigners are allowed per match and keeping a 4-3-3 formation):

 
 

Goalkeeper: Raju Ganguly (Tollygunge Agragami)  
 
Defense:
Abhishek Das and Abhra Mondal (East Bengal), Anthony Chetri (Army XI), Imran Khan (Mohammedan Sporting)
 
 
Midfield:
Lalkamal Bhoumick (Mohun Bagan), Prohlad Roy and Abinash Ruidas (East Bengal)
 
 
Forward:
Balwant Singh (Mohun Bagan), Dudu Omagbemi (East Bengal), Koko Sakibo (Tollygunge Agragami)
  Coach: Armando Colaco (East Bengal)

East Bengal’s Golden Continental Run

Kingfisher East Bengal FC has recently been the second Indian team to make it to the last-four stage of a continental championship as the only unbeaten club in this year’s competition. Kaushik Saha traces their incredible journey with a brief history of the tournament and a way ahead for the Red and Gold brigade

One may wonder why I am following up on East Bengal’s record against foreign opponents so soon with a similar piece – but the club’s latest achievement merits another article.
 
East Bengal became the second team, and first outside the current Indian football powerhouse of Goa (Dempo also reached the semi-finals in 2008, but the tournament was played in a different format then) to make it to the semi-finals of a continental championship – the AFC Cup. What makes their achievement more special is that they have not lost a single match so far – the only club in this year’s competition with the above feat. East Bengal has played 9, won six and drawn 3 this season.
 
There is another reason to feel proud as an Indian football fan and East Bengal’s. After some unimpressive performances by the national team which includes a loss to Afghanistan in the recently concluded SAFF Cup, East Bengal has joined two teams from Kuwait and one team from Jordan in the last 4 matches.

The AFC Cup

The Asian Football Confederation developed a “Vision Asia” document in the early 2000s in which they looked at the club and national football structure in its entirety. The report identified 14 nations that fell outside the top 14 ranked countries from Asia as “emerging nations”. A decision was taken that domestic clubs from top 14 “developed nations” would play in the Asian Champions League, while 32 clubs from the emerging nations would play in the AFC Cup. There is also an AFC President’s Cup, meant for the 12 teams which do not fall in either category.

The multiple-tier structure is similar to that of Europe’s UEFA Champions League and the Europa League. This is to provide the clubs from emerging nations an opportunity to compete at the continental level. The first edition was held in 2004. Initially, ACL and AFC Cup were unrelated, but 2009 onwards, the winner of the AFC Cup is allowed to take part in the AFC Champions League qualifiers. A single-match Round of 16 was introduced the same year. Kuwait Sports Club and Al-Faisaly club of Jordan are the two clubs with 2 titles each, with Kuwait SC being the defending champions.
 
India is one of the 14 original countries (the list has kept on changing according to FIFA rankings and clubs’ performances and now increased to 16) and has remained in the list – two clubs are allowed to participate from India. The two clubs that represent India are the champions of the Federation Cup and the I-league.
 
 

Indian Clubs’ Performance in AFC Cup

India has been historically represented by only six teams – East Bengal, Mahindra United (now disbanded), Mohun Bagan, Dempo, Salgaocar and Churchill Brothers (Churchill Brothers and Dempo have also played in the AFC Champions League playoffs). Besides Dempo, who lost in the 2008 semi-finals to Al-Safa of Lebanon, East Bengal reached the quarter-finals in 2004 where they lost to Al-Jaish of Syria and Mahindra United reached the same stage in 2007 where they lost to Al-Nejmeh of Lebanon.

East Bengal’s Performance in the Current Season

East Bengal qualified for the tournament as winners of the 2012 Federation Cup, with I-League winners Churchill Brothers being the other participant from India. East Bengal went through a lot of changes during the course of the tournament. First and most importantly, their talismanic coach – who led them in the Round of 32 to the top of the group and then a comfortable win in the Round of 16 -Trevor James Morgan left the team after three years in charge at the end of the Indian football season in June, but before East Bengal played their crucial quarter-final match.
 
Some changes took place in the team as well. Robin Singh was let go to get in Joaquim Abranches. Penn Orji of Nigeria was replaced by James Moga of South Sudan and Ryuji Sueoka of Japan came in place of Australian Andrew Barisić. However, Mehtab Hussain, the skipper for this season and the engine of the team, defender Arnab Mondal and Nigerian centre-back Uga Okpara have been retained.
 
East Bengal’s preparation for the quarter-final was far from ideal. Their new coach – Brazilian Marcos Falopa is yet to fully settle in and soak in the local culture. East Bengal played just two competitive matches this season in the Calcutta Football League, one of which could not be completed due to poor light conditions. The opposition was Semen Padang, the Indonesian champions who had played pre-season friendlies against teams from West Asia and topped the group which included Churchill Brothers.

East Bengal vs. Semen Padang
 
However, two things went in East Bengal’s favour –one, by virtue of earlier round results, they faced a comparatively weaker team from South East Asia rather than a West or Central Asian team. Secondly, they played their first match at home, in front of a vociferous 40,000 strong crowd, which helped them get the initial momentum. They won 1-0 at home (Yuva Bharati Krirangan) via a goal from substitute Ryuji Sueoka. More importantly, they didn’t allow Semen Padang to score an away goal. In the return leg at Indonesia, East Bengal fell behind, but managed an equalizer via South Sudanese international James Moga. The 1-1 draw was enough to send them into the semi-finals on a 2-1 aggregate.

The Way Ahead

In the round of semi-final, both advantages East Bengal had in the Round of 8 will be negated. They will play the defending champions and Kuwaiti Premier League champions Kuwait SC away first on October 1 at their home ground Al Kuwait Sports Club Stadium, followed by the home match on October 22. The first leg will be played just seven days after the second leg of the quarter-final, which means East Bengal won’t have the time to rest their injured players or play a competitive match in Indian tournaments. The I-League has begun, and East Bengal haven’t been able to start so far because of their Asian engagements. That, and the festival season in India means they will virtually have no time for mental and physical preparation for the second leg.
 

Kuwait SC
 
Kuwait SC is ranked 141 in the World Football Club ranking, in touching distance with eminent European Clubs like AS Roma. To put in a perspective, East Bengal is ranked last among the eligible clubs at 447, the only Indian club to feature in the rankings.
 
After losing to Bahrain based Al-Riffa and Safa in the group stage, Kuwait SC have not looked back. They topped their group despite the setbacks. In the Round of 16, they beat Iraqi Premier League club Dohuk SC on penalties. In the quarter-finals, they beat New Radiant of Maldives 12-2 over two legs. They have in their ranks the Tunisian striker Issam Jemâa, (who has the record of scoring the most goals for the Tunisian national team, and is also the top scorer in the current AFC Cup with 13 goals, including 7 vs. New Radiant), Bahrain defender Hussain Ali Baba (who has 71 international caps for Bahrain) and Brazilian striker Rogerinho in their ranks, besides one of the most celebrated players in Kuwait, midfielder Jarah Al Ateeqi as their captain.
 
East Bengal was embroiled in a slight visa issue, which means some of the key first team players, including captain Mehtab, will reach Kuwait less than 36 hours before the start of the match. Nigerian Chidi Edeh is their top scorer in the tournament and a dependable forward. Coach Falopa has repeatedly stressed that he won’t mind conceding two or three as long as they score at least one vital away goal. The coach hinted at a 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 formation, but has kept cards close to his chest as far as the starting 11 is concerned for the first leg.
 
A victory will be historic, because not only will they be the first Indian team to reach the finals, but will improve India’s AFC quotient. If they do so, they will have to contend with the winners of Al-Faisaly and Qadsia Sporting Club of Syria. And that would be a single leg match on a neutral territory. Let’s wish East Bengal the best and hope they make the nation proud!

Red and Gold’s Moments of International Glory

East Bengal Club have consistently performed well against strong teams from outside India over the years, and won a major trophy at the AFF Championship in 2003. Recently, they became the first Indian team to qualify for pre-quarter-finals of AFC Cup, unbeaten from their group. Kaushik Saha analyses their glorious performances over the years and previews their upcoming match

East Bengal have a glorious history when it comes to playing against opposition from outside India. This includes countries ranked far above India by FIFA – for instance, PAS Tehran Club of Iran in the IFA Shield final in 1970 and Pyongyang City Club of North Korea in the IFA Shield final of 1973. In 1993, as a wide-eyed 11-year-old, I had seen them demolish Al Jahra 6-2 in an Asian Cup Winners’ Cup match with Carlton Chapman scoring a hat-trick. And then, inspired by Baichung Bhutia and Sammy Omollo, they beat Verdy Kawasaki of Japan in 1997, one of the strongest clubs in Asia at that time. But their peak came in the ASEAN Club Championship in 2003 when they emerged winners by beating BEC Tero Sasana FC of Thailand, becoming the first Indian club to win a tournament at that level.

What makes East Bengal click against foreign opponents?

A cursory look at East Bengal’s domestic record in their 90+ years of existence will show they are as successful as their archrivals Mohun Bagan. Over the years, these two have weathered a lot of oppositions – good and great teams from Kolkata, Kerala, Punjab, Goa and the Northeast have played spectacular football in patches – but none have been able to match the longevity of these two clubs from Kolkata. A possible reason is that over the years, the legend of these two clubs has drawn innumerable greats of Indian football and from other countries to play for the duo.

But when it comes to results against international opposition, East Bengal are miles ahead of Mohun Bagan, or for that matter, any other Indian club. The main reason, as I see it, is that East Bengal have that certain legacy. Ever since the famous five Pandavas of East Bengal beat the Chinese XI in 1948, successive East Bengal teams have believed they can compete on an equal footing against any international opposition – irrespective of their status. The other teams are yet to get that kind of a breakthrough – result wise or mentally, against international clubs. East Bengal have had patches where such victories were hard to come, but those patches haven’t lasted too long. A second reason is that East Bengal, unlike a few other clubs, have taken international tournaments or outings as importantly as domestic engagements, even when they have not been part of tournaments played in India.

Case in point – Churchill Brothers this season sacrificed their Asian campaign to win the I-League, not a bad move really, but it showed where their priorities lie. East Bengal, on the other hand, took the AFC Cup as seriously as they take any match they play in India. As a result, they finished as unbeaten group toppers, becoming the first Indian team to achieve this feat.

East Bengal’s AFC campaign 2013

East Bengal have had a dream run in the AFC Cup this year. They emerged unbeaten in their group, and emerged group toppers with 14 points (Selangor of Vietnam finished second with eight points), which means they will play their pre-quarter-final match at home. Now, a detailed list of results is available on the internet, and I shan’t repeat them, but talk of East Bengal’s strategy instead.

What went in East Bengal’s favour? East Bengal were in contention to win the I-League after nearly a decade, but once a couple of results went against them, they decided to give the AFC Cup their best shot and ensured their players stay fresh in the crucial matches by rotating players in tournaments like the IFA Shield.

East Bengal players celebrate a goal in AFC Cup 2013

A combination of youth (Lalrindika Ralte, Manandeep Singh and Sanju Pradhan) and experience (Mehtab Hossain, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Harmanjot Khabra), good foreign signings (like Andrew Barisić, who didn’t let the hangover of Tolgay Özbey remain) and established foreign players (Uga Okpara, Penn Orji and Chidi Edeh) ensured a balanced team, so much so that the absence of a veteran like Alvito D’Cunha and the off form of Robin Singh (mainstay in the last couple of seasons along with Tolgay who left for Mohun Bagan) were hardly felt. Chidi and Barisić scored goals at crucial times while Naoba Singh and Okpara defended well. The surprise packages were Arnab Mondal in defence and Dika as a midfielder – two young players who hold great promise for Indian football. Trevor James Morgan, the experienced British coach, used 4-3-3 and 4-2-1-3 combinations with great effect – he crowded the defence and didnot let the attack falter either.

What worked in East Bengal’s favour was that their home matches were being played in the extreme heat and humidity of a Kolkata summer. Their rivals from Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore also have hot summers, but the Kolkata summer is of a different league altogether – clubbed with energy-sapping humidity. As a result, East Bengal players, used to this weather, won all their home matches convincingly and collected valuable points. But their most significant victory was the away 4-2 victory vs. Tampines Rovers in Singapore, a match which instilled confidence that they could emerge as group toppers.

Road ahead for East Bengal in AFC Cup 2013

East Bengal next plays Yangon United FC, Myanmar National League champions for the last two years. They finished second in their group behind New Radiant of Maldives on goal difference. They are definitely not a pushover team, having won five of their matches and losing just one (the away match to New Radiant), and having scored 18 goals, of which 9 have been scored by Adama Koné, their striker from Ivory Coast. Besides Koné, they have a good defender in the form of Michael Cvetkovski of Australia and an inspirational captain-midfielder in the form of Khin Maung Lwin who is the Malaysian national captain as well, with 49 international caps. But then, East Bengal will have the home advantage, with Yangon having to battle the weather and a boisterous crowd of 50,000 East Bengal supporters at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan. The rules of AFC Cup ensure there’s no away match for East Bengal, and they would like to cash in. East Bengal at this stage, have no major injury related concerns and will play the only I-League match vs. Shillong Lajong FC on May 12, a match which does not hold much significance to East Bengal, and they can afford to rest a couple of their first team players.

The Yangon United team

Two interesting facts about Yangon – they started off as Air Bagan; now that sounds similar to archrivals Mohun Bagan, and they are affiliated with BEC Tero Sasana (player training programmes etc.), who have been mentioned earlier in the article. If East Bengal go through to the quarter-final, they will have to play either Semen Padang of Indonesia or SHB Ðà Nẵng of Vietnam. Those matches will be played in September, and on a home and away basis. But that’s quite far away. For now, let’s hope for an East Bengal victory today and also wish they bid their talismanic coach Morgan a fitting farewell.

Champions Never Die

Soumyadip Das recollects that ill-fated day nine years ago when India lost a talented Brazilian recruit on the football ground owing to poor medical facilities. Sadly, little has changed since!

Cristiano Sebastião de Lima Júnior
On December 5, 2004, it was around 8 p.m. when I returned from my evening classes. My mother was standing with my aunt on the first floor as I entered the house with some friends. This day has always been a sad day for us, as one of my uncles died of appendicitis at the same age as I’m now (22). But what I heard from my mother was something beyond what I could imagine, even in my nightmares. She said, “Your father told me to tell you that Brazilian player Júnior is no more.

I was shocked. I knew the final match of Federation Cup between Dempo Sports Club and Mohun Bagan at Sree Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru was due to be held that Sunday. I rushed to my room and switched on the television. The news channels were covering the untimely demise of Cristiano Sebastião de Lima Júnior along with video clips of the match. Dempo was already leading 1-0, thanks to a clinical finish from their Brazilian recruit in the first half. After scoring the first goal, he went to the camera and made the shape of a circle with his two hands to depict a goal, along with his striking partner Ranti Martins. Then the fatal accident happened in the 78th minute. The Brazilian was moving towards the goal to receive a long lofted ball from a Dempo player, Lazarus Fernandes. Mohun Bagan’s goalkeeper, Subrata Paul was rushing out of his goal to prevent him from scoring. The forward got the ball before the opponent and his touch of right foot sent the ball towards the open goal. But within seconds, Subrata collided with him. The goal was given and Dempo players went on to celebrate their victory. Suddenly, Ranti and R.C. Prakash noticed their teammate lying senseless on the ground. They tried pulling him up, in vain. They shouted for medical help, Ranti even tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and waved his jersey to air him. But alas, there was neither enough medical staff nor an ambulance at the ground! It took quite a while to call an ambulance and take him to Hosmat Hospital which was some distance away from the stadium.

The rest of the match continued without any more excitement. Dempo became the Fed Cup champions that year defeating Mohun Bagan 2-0, winning the trophy which Mohun Bagan held for 11 years till then. But the Dempo players were in no mood to celebrate. They were concerned about their teammate. Lazarus Fernandes and a few others wept like a child, so did coach Armando Colaço. Those watching the match at the stadium or on television feared the worst. A few minutes later, Brazilian player Cristiano Júnior was officially declared dead on arrival at the hospital.

httpv://youtu.be/32H5eAimgfY

My mood changed completely. I’d seen many horrible incidents on the football ground in the past, but never before heard of a player dying on the field, while playing. And in this case, it wasn’t just any player. He was a player everyone loved and was especially close to the hearts of many East Bengal fans like me. He won us our National League victory in the season before that. In 2003-04, East Bengal lifted the National League for the second consecutive time and overall third time. Júnior(No. 26) was the top scorer for East Bengal FC. He had an elite partnership with Indian ace Baichung Bhutia. Júnior scored 15 goals and became the top goal-scorer that season. We never managed to win the League after that. Dempo announced that they will discontinue Júnior’s #10 shirt.

But that cannot erase the memories of the tragedy at one of the premier tournaments of the country’s club football close to a decade back. The incident, sadly, has not served as an eye-opener to committees organising football matches. Till date, the medical facilities available in the ground are not up to the mark. Recently, D. Venkatesh of Bangalore Mars, died of a cardiac arrest at a match again in Bengaluru. This, despite that on May 31, 2012, the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) made it mandatory to have Automated External Defibrillators (AED) in all stadiums during high-profile games including those of the national teams.

Cristiano Sebastião de Lima Júnior was 25 years (born in 1980, Rio de Janeiro) old when he died of coronary artery anomalies on the football ground. The Brazilian was a true goal machine. He left East Bengal FC and joined the Goan club Dempo SC as the highest paid footballer in India at that time in September, 2004. There too he scored many goals, including a brace in the final match of his life. He was a God-gifted striker who scored till his last breath. In India, Junior is remembered every year by his clubs through memorial services. But a true mark of respect would be when similar incidents don’t recur on the Indian football pitch.

An Eye on I-League : The Ball gets Rolling

With the top division football league in India commencing this month, intriguing battles await the coming weeks. Debojyoti Chakraborty tracks down the proceedings in the I-League through a monthly review series. Here is the first instalment

The national football league of India, popularly known as the I-League, kick-started on October 6, 2012 with a new sense of expectation. Much like the football revolution taking place in England, a lesser known club – Prayag United, who have not won anything significant till date in their short history – have been making the news by building a strong team, with a string of high-profile signings, to compete in this year’s edition. With the usual favourites, Dempo and some strong contenders like East Bengal, Churchill Brothers and Salgaocar already in the fray, this will surely light up the scene in coming months.

There was no shortage of goals in the first round of matches. Only East Bengal and Sporting Clube de Goa drew blanks. Other than that, each match saw at least two goals with Prayag United’s 5-1 hammering of Air India topping the charts. Prayag United is the team to watch out for this season as they have splashed out cash (with a bit of Middle-East / Russian influence!) and their star man Ranti Martins, captured from Goa, did not disappoint as he started the campaign with a hat-trick. This win was even more impressive considering they had to play with ten men for 70 minutes after their influential centre-half, Bello Rasaq got sent off.

Ranti Martin opens his account with a hat-trick

Similarly impressive were United Sikkim, brainchild of the iconic Indian forward Baichung Bhutia, who twice came back from behind to beat Salgaocar in a 3-2 thriller. Pailan Arrows, the U-19 team put up by the AIFF, showed similar fighting spirit to defeat Mumbai FC by the same scoreline.  ONGC, another lowly football club in the competition, too put up a brave face but lost 2-3 to Pune FC.

There was no such fight seen in the match against Shillong Lajong where Mohun Bagan lost 0-2. After the much hyped pairing of Odafa Okolie and Tolgay Özbey misfired there was not much left in the team to draw inspiration from. Elsewhere, Dempo had the final say in a 2-1 local derby win over Churchill Brothers.

Dempo showed why they are the best club in India for the last few years with a 5-0 thrashing of local rivals Sporting Clube de Goa. Churchill Brothers also kept up the pace by beating ONGC with similar margins. Another title contender, East Bengal, had to rely on a deflected free kick to win by 1-0 against United Sikkim.

Prayag United kept up their good show and in the process brought in more misery for Mohun Bagan with a 2-1 win. This result saw the Kolkata giants with no points from two matches and brought in the first casualty of the season in the form of coach Santosh Kashyap.

Elsewhere, Pailan Arrows kept on surprising people with their back-to-back win, this time against Mumbai FC while Pune FC kept up their pace with another win against Mumbai FC. Shillong Lajong were able to hold on to a 1-1 draw against Salgaocar, thus keeping the Goan club in the bottom half of the table.

So, after two rounds of matches, we have seen 50 goals at an average of more than 3.5 per game and already one of the coaches have been shown the exit door. Kashyap is not going to be the last man sacked this season, one may feel. Dempo sit pretty at the top of the table with team of the season, Prayag United. Joining them are the steady Pune FC and minnows Pailan Arrows, who have won two matches – same number of wins they could manage in the entire last season. Mumbai FC, Mohun Bagan, Air India and ONGC are all looking to open their accounts while Sporting Clube de Goa will be the last team this season to score a goal. But these are early days and we are sure more surprises and drama will be unfolded before we draw the curtains.

Santosh Kashyap: Those were the happy days!

A flurry of goals speaks volumes of the foreign players’ – mainly forwards and advanced playmakers – influence in the I-League. So it is not surprising to see two foreigners with one hat-trick apiece already under their belt forming the partnership up front in our team of the month – Ranti Martins (Prayag United) and Akram Moghrabi (Churchill Brothers). The linkman would be Carlos Hernández who has already mesmerized everyone with his passing and free kick taking skills during his short stint with Prayag United. Beto from Churchill Brothers will give him able company in the middle of park who himself is another superb dead ball specialist. Clifford Miranda of Dempo will occupy the left side of the midfield by virtue of his brace against Sporting Clube de Goa. The last place in the midfield goes to the youngster from Pailan Arrows, Milan Singh Ongnam. Subhasish Roy Chowdhury from Dempo has looked very much assured under the bars and he takes the keeper’s spot. East Bengal is the only team with a clean sheet so far and much of that credit should go to centre-half Uga Okpara. He is partnered by Bilal Sheikh El Najarin from Churchill Brothers who has been strong in defence as well as scored one against ONGC. They are flanked by Sukhen Dey of Prayag United by virtue of his fine defensive display, especially against Mohun Bagan and Khangembam Jeevan Singh from Lajong FC.

Team of the month: Subhasish Roy Chowdhury (Dempo); Sukhen Dey (Prayag United), Uga Okpara (East Bengal), Bilal Sheikh El Najarin (Churchill Brothers), Khangembam Jeevan Singh (Lajong FC); Milan Singh Ongnam (Pailan Arrows), Beto (Churchill Brothers), Carlos Hernández (Prayag United), Clifford Miranda (Dempo); Ranti Martins (Prayag United), Akram Moghrabi (Churchill Brothers).

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

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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[1] 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.