Indian football: bucking the trend

In a departure from the past, when teams from Goa and Bengal dominated the scene for quite some time, the emergence of clubs such as Chennaiyin FC (ISL champion) and Bengaluru FC (I-League champion) has lent Indian football some variety that was long due.

Chennaiyin FC players celebrate after winning the Indian Super League.   -  ISL/ SPORTZPICS

The Indian football season panned out in multi-chromatic shades of possibilities, with the Indian Super League and the I-League bringing to the fore the excellence of clubs from the south. In a remarkable shift from the trend, where teams from Goa and Bengal have been dominating the scene for quite some time, the emergence of clubs such as Chennaiyin FC (ISL champion) and Bengaluru FC (I-League champion) has lent Indian football some variety that was long due.

 

Chennaiyin FC’s triumph reinstated the pre-eminence of the Coromandel flavour that once dominated Indian football. The victory was also significant for the reason that it galvanised an interest in football that was on the verge of fading out in one of the most important regions of the south.

The Chennai-based franchise, co-owned by Bollywood star Abhishek Bachchan and Indian limited-overs cricket captain M. S. Dhoni, emerged victor with a fine come-from-behind win (3-2) over favourite FC Goa in the final.

The brilliance of the win, however, was dampened by some unsavoury incidents immediately after the final. FC Goa, apparently unwilling to accept the verdict, incited trouble at its home ground — the Nehru Stadium in Fatorda. The FC Goa players, led by some members of the team’s support staff, misbehaved with the referee, Yudai Yamamoto of Japan, and that turned to a fracas, following which the Goa police detained Chennaiyin FC’s captain Elano Blumer of Brazil. FC Goa co-owner Dattaraj Salgaocar filed a police case against Elano alleging assault. It was a case where over-riding zeal got the better of reason.

The Regulatory Commission, chaired by a former judge of the Gujarat High Court and instituted by the ISL, fined FC Goa Rs. 11 crore and banned its owners, Dattaraj Salgaocar and Srinivas Dempo, for three and two years respectively on disciplinary grounds. The decision came almost five months after the incident!

I-League suffered a big blow with three teams — Pune FC, Bharat FC and Royal Wahingdoh — deciding to quit the tournament. Facing financial crunch and their inability to comply with many of the conditions in the club licensing criteria, put forth by the All India Football Federation, the clubs found it difficult to exist in a situation where the focus was on the more glamorous ISL. Despite being played in a ‘closed’ format, which ruled out relegation of any of the contestants, the corporate interest was on the ISL. On the other hand, the I-League appeared forlorn, and the situation was worsened by a sense of disbelief and disenchantment over the lackadaisical attitude of the national federation.

With the Goan participation restricted to Salgaocar and Sporting Clube de Goa, it was a straight fight for the title between Bengaluru and Kolkata (represented by two of the oldest clubs of Asia, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal). Mohun Bagan, the defending champion, made a good start and led the race until Round 12 in a tournament that featured nine teams and 16 rounds of competition. But with the AIFF slapping a four-match ban on the Mohun Bagan coach, Sanjoy Sen, the team failed to maintain the momentum in the homestretch, losing and drawing four matches and in the process conceding the advantage to Bengaluru FC.

Being the most professional outfit in the I-League, Bengaluru FC, under the guidance of its successful coach Ashley Westwood, grabbed the opportunity to emerge winner with a round to spare. This was Bengaluru FC’s and Westwood’s second I-League title in three years.

Mohun Bagan, which routed Bengaluru FC 5-0 at home in the last round (it was an inconsequential match, as Bengaluru FC had already won the crown), started its campaign in the Federation Cup in right earnest. The tournament was reinstituted by the AIFF at the behest of the Asian Football Confederation after it was unilaterally scrapped in 2014. The championship, played on home-and-away format, featured the top eight teams of the I-League.

Mohun Bagan, overcoming the disappointment of losing the I-League, made a strong start against Salgaocar FC, winning 7-2 on aggregate. The Kolkata club, which remained unbeaten till the end, scoring 17 goals and conceding only two, thrashed newcomer Aizawl FC 5-0 in the final to win the Federation Cup for the 14th time.

India international Jeje Lalpekhlua (Mohun Bagan) emerged the best Indian striker of the season, scoring 20 goals. Mohun Bagan’s Sanjoy Sen also became the most successful Indian coach after Dempo’s Armando Colaco.