A futile exercise, to say the least

A. VINOD

THE end to the sixth Tata National Football League was quite dramatic with Mohun Bagan holding on to what has become an established routine by it - winning the title every alternate year. But even as the 132-match sequence concluded recently with the last and 22nd round throwing up several upset results and the famed Kolkata club nosing out Churchill Brothers, Goa, for its third title, what stood out was the fact that the NFL, in such a short spell itself, has become an exercise in futility.

The Mohun Bagan team which won its third National Football League title.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

If the institution of a semi-professional league, six years ago, was based on the theory that it would do a world of good to the upliftment of the standard of Indian football, in reality the results seen from the quality of matches which formed part of this year's NFL were hardly encouraging. Most encounters hardly threw up anything of interest and were slow-paced as teams struggled with inconsistency and seemed overtly dependent on their foreign recruits. So much so that the show itself was largely dominated by players such as Yakubu Yusif, Jose Ramirez Barreto, Rui Wanderley Weis and Sunday Seah rather than by their Indian counterparts.

Strictly from an Indian viewpoint, it is better to forget this year's NFL to the extent that it put players even with calibre and first choices such as Jo Paul Ancheri, I. M. Vijayan, Mahesh Gawli, Roque Barreto, R. C. Prakash and Jules Alberto (to name only a few) in bad light. Not that they were expected to overshadow those from abroad, but their failure in even putting up a show of equal substance on a continual basis remained only too glaring in the end.

Added to this were the usual problems created by the All India Football Federation which is yet to get its act together in visualising the conduct of such a mammoth affair in a smooth and efficient manner. If recent studies have revealed the conscientious approach of the Japanese FA behind the tremendous success of its J-league, it is only sad that the AIFF continues to lack in ideas and the necessary willpower to work unitedly for the cause of the NFL in general and Indian football in particular.

That it could not release the match schedule even a month before the start of the NFL should portray the ineptitude of those who wield power in the AIFF today. Excuses could be heard in plenty. But forcing the teams to play the first 10 rounds in less than seven weeks and the last seven within four weeks was reason enough for many coaches to point an accusing finger towards the AIFF for the overall pathetic show from the boys under their charge.

Any attempt to wrap up the NFL would also not be complete if due mention is not made of the poor standard of refereeing which was reflected in most of the matches. The only saving grace was the AIFF bringing in referees from Malaysia to supervise the matches of the last two rounds, particularly as the question over the title and demotion hung in balance. Just as it was able to rope in Tatas as the title sponsor midway through.

Having emerged as one of the top-spenders along with Mahindra United and East Bengal during the all-India transfers, Mohun Bagan was indeed a firm favourite for the title right from the start. Yet, as it emerged off the blocks with wins over its city-mates Tollygunge Agragami and East Bengal in the first two rounds and then showed a huge dip in form in the subsequent four rounds, it was only too apparent that the fortunes of this century-old club were largely dependent on its Brazilian recruit, Jose Ramirez Barreto.

Barreto was just a shadow of his usual self as his side struggled with a goalless draw against FC Kochin in the third round and then sunk to a humiliating 3-1 defeat against debutant Hindustan Aeronautics Sports Club, Bangalore, before being held to draws by ITI and Vasco SC. However, with Barreto returning fit and in near top form against JCT, Mohun Bagan, from then on, was a considerably transformed side as it enjoyed success against the champion side of the inaugural edition, Punjab Police and Churchill Brothers at home in the next three rounds.

A draw against Salgaocar SC and defeats at the hands of Mahindra United and Vasco SC in the 11th and 12th rounds saw the fortunes of Mohun Bagan plummet before it came back into contention with creditable wins over FC Kochin, HASC and East Bengal in the second phase. A fighting 2-2 draw against ITI did not spoil its momentum and it was back to winning ways scoring over JCT, Punjab Police, Mahindra United and Tollygunge Agragami and thus remained in contention.

However, failure to hold on to a 3-0 lead against Salgaocar, which recoiled brilliantly to win 4-3 in what easily remains the most memorable battle of the sequence, in the penultimate round, pushed Mohun Bagan to slug it out with Churchill Brothers in the final round for the title and the top prize of Rs. 40 lakhs. But for all the excitement that it emanated with the Goan club playing at home in the final round, the needle affair was more or less dominated by the Kolkata outfit before Abdul Wasiu Saliu netted the winner in the 73rd-minute.

Besides Barreto, who once again showed poise in the midfield and upfront, the other key architect of the Mohun Bagan triumph was Abdul Latif Seriki, whose crucial strikes and tally of seven goals were as important as the 15 goals scored by his Brazilian colleague. Another consistent performer was Amauri D'Silva in defence while R. C. Prakash, Basudeb Mondal and James Singh, keeping with the trend shown by the other Indian players, could shine only in patches.

For Churchill Brothers it was once again a heart-breaking story, a repeat of what had happened when JCT pipped it to the post in the inaugural year and then again Mohun Bagan two years ago. Its progress to the second spot in the table was helped largely by the scoring prowess of its Ghanaian recruit Yakubu Yusif, who, eventually won the leading scorer award with a tally of 18 goals, which also included two hat-tricks. And, like Mohun Bagan, it suffered only four defeats as it finished with 42 points, two points behind the champion Kolkata outfit.

Starting off with easy wins over JCT and Punjab Police, the Goan club spearheaded by Yusif, Abdul Ganiyu Saley, Osumanu Husseini and Edward Ansah remained undefeated until the fifth round where it met its match in East Bengal and narrowly lost 0-1. Its other reverse in the first phase was against Mohun Bagan with Barreto coming up with a double strike to settle the issue. But beginning the second phase with a huge 4-1 win over FC Kochin at home (the teams had drawn 1-1 in their first meeting), Churchill Brothers, thereafter, was merciless against ITI and Punjab Police before it avenged its loss against East Bengal through Osumanu Husseini.

However, after earning a crucial 3-2 win over Mahindra United with the help of a Yusif hat-trick, the Goan side was given quite a few anxious moments by Tollygunge before it gained a 2-2 draw. But against arch-rival Salgaocar, Churchill suffered its third defeat and this in retrospect cost it the title as the three-point loss helped Mohun Bagan to reduce the gap. Yet, the Goan side had its chances as it went into the final round match against the Kolkata outfit before the dismissal of Mahesh Gawli.

Though Churchill lost the close race, the NFL was otherwise a good outing for the Goan clubs with Vasco SC and Salgaocar SC taking the third and fourth spots with a tally of 40 and 39 points respectively. In fact, Vasco surprised many observers as it briefly leapt into the lead during the 15th and 16th rounds before falling back. The club, like the others, was mainly spearheaded by its Brazilian scoring machine Rui Wanderley Weis who finished the league with 12 goals, third behind Yusif and Barreto. Salgaocar was also in contention for the top spot at one stage. And, though it lost only to Vasco (in the first phase), FC Kochin and JCT (in the second phase), the nine draws in which it was involved cost the team the title. Liberian Sunday Seah and Alex Ambrose were the key figures behind the Goan club's finish within the top four.

The biggest let down, perhaps, was East Bengal, winner of the title last year. It finally ended in the fifth spot with a consistent show during the latter half of the league. But for a side which boasted of a strong line-up comprising Omolaja Olalekan, Suley Musah, Jackson Agaypong, Ancheri, Vijayan and others, East Bengal hardly looked the champion side it was last year at any time losing as many as eight matches, including four-in-a-row (against Vasco, HASC, ITI and Salgaocar) in the first phase.

Also disappointing was the show that Mahindra United produced before finishing sixth. If much was expected from this Harish Rao-managed side prior to the start of the league, the Mumbai side on the field could hardly live up to expectations being able to win only nine of its 22 matches. Of course, what upset its rhythm were the injuries sustained by many of the key players, striker Mohammed Najeeb, in particular. The side had two good strikers in Austin Okolo and Bala Usman but its midfielders did not rise to the occasion.

The two Bangalore sides, despite their low profile, proved their worth especially in the first phase. But ITI finished one notch above new-comer HASC. While ITI had Mike Okoro (who came up with a hat-trick against Punjab Police) as it spearhead, HASC's fortunes were mostly due to the form shown by Raja Baliev Nurlan. Tollygunge Agragami, with its hat-trick hero Akeem Abul Alem and Moses Owira, faced the threat of relegation before it went into its last match against FC Kochin. But with Mehtab Hussain, Ashim Biswas and the two foreigners combining well, the Kolkata side scored an easy 5-0 win over its rival to send the Kerala side crashing out of the league.

JCT, the winner of the inaugural NFL, just about managed to retain its position in the premier league as it finished 10th with a tally of 21 points, two points behind Tollygunge. However, the side managed by the National coach, Sukhvinder Singh, was just a shadow of its glorious past as it battled against the top clubs. Punjab Police, which had gained promotion, was always marked for the relegation right from the start though the side had an opportunistic striker in Praveen Kumar.

The flop show that FC Kochin produced would remain one of the main stories of this year's NFL. Floated as the first professional club in the country, FC Kochin could hardly live up to its name at any time in the league. With almost all players which had helped it gain the fourth spot last year deserting the club in the pre-season transfer, it was indeed a tough task for the club management to build up a new side. Yet, it looked to have its chances until its Liberian striker Josiah B. Seton mysteriously disappeared midway through. In Czech Karel Stromsik, the side had a good coach, but few players other than Obinna Winners and Ali Abubacker could understand his feel for the game. Pity that Kerala, the reigning National champion, would go unrepresented in next year's NFL.

The following are round-by-round results in which home teams have been named first.

Round I:

12-12-01: Punjab Police 1 (Praveen Kumar) lost to East Bengal 3 (Suley Musah 2, I. M. Vijayan); Salgaocar SC 1 (Glador Zaire) bt FC Kochin 0.

13-12-01: Mohun Bagan 2 (Abdul Latif Seriki, James Singh) bt Tollygunge Agragami 0; JCT 1 (Hardip Singh Gill) lost to Churchill Brothers 2 (Osumanu Husseini, Francis Coelho); ITI 0 drew with Mahindra United 0; Vasco SC 1 (Peter Rodrigues) drew with HASC 1 (Sunil Kumar).

Round II:

16-12-01: East Bengal 0 lost to Mohun Bagan 1 (Jose Barreto); Punjab Police 0 lost to Churchill Brothers 3 (Abdul Saley, Noel Wilson, Somatai Shaiza).

17-12-01: Mahindra United 2 (Austin Okolo, Bala Usman) bt Vasco SC 0; ITI 1 (C. K. Jiteesh) drew with Tollygunge Agragami 1 (Prahlad Singh Rawat).

18-12-01: FC Kochin 1 (V. P. Shaji) drew with JCT 1 (Hardip Singh Sangha); HASC 2 (Raja Baliev Nurlan 2) bt Salgaocar SC 1 (Dennis Carbal).

Round III:

21-12-01: Mahindra United 1 (Musa Isa Eroje) drew with East Bengal 1 (Omolaja Olalekan); HASC 0 drew with Tollygunge Agragami 0; Vasco SC 2 (Satish Minz, Rui Wanderley Weis) bt Punjab Police 1 (Praveen Kumar).

22-12-01: Churchill Brothers 1 (Roque Barreto) drew with ITI 1 (Kenneth Onu).

23-12-01: FC Kochin 0 drew with Mohun Bagan 0; Salgaocar SC 0 drew with JCT 0.

Round IV:

24-12-01: Mahindra United 2 (Mohd. Najeeb, Khalid Jamil) bt Tollygunge Agragami 1 (Akeem Abul Alem).

27-12-01: FC Kochin 0 lost to ITI 2 (Kenneth Onu 2); Salgaocar SC 2 (Eugene Gray, Bruno Coutinho) bt Punjab Police 0; HASC 3 (Rajendra Prasad 2, Raja Baliev Nurlan) bt Mohun Bagan 1 (Jose Barreto); East Bengal 2 (Omolaja Olalekan, Dipendu Biswas) bt JCT 1 Hardip Singh Saini); Vasco SC 1 (Rui Wanderley Weis) drew with Churchill Brothers 1 (Yakubu Yusif).

Round V:

31-12-01: FC Kochin 2 (Susanth Mathew, V. P. Shaji) bt Punjab Police 0; Mahindra United 0 drew with Salgoacar SC 0; ITI 0 drew with Mohun Bagan 0.

02-01-02: JCT 0 lost to HASC 1 (Dayanand); East Bengal 1 (Suley Musah) bt Churchill Brothers 0.

03-01-02: Vasco SC 2 (Rui Wanderley Weis, Satish Minz) bt Tollygunge Agragami 0.

Round VI:

05-01-02: JCT 1 (Hardip Singh Gill) lost to Mahindra United 2 (Khalid Jamil, Austin Okolo); Punjab Police 1 (Praveen Kumar) bt HASC 0; East Bengal 1 (Omolaja Olalekan) lost to ITI 2 (Mohd. Salissu, Kenneth Onu).

06-01-02: FC Kochin 1 (Josiah Seton) drew with Churchill Brothers 1 (Rajesh Meetei); Salgaocar SC 1 (Sunday Seah) drew with Tollygunge Agragami (Akeem Abul Alem).

07-01-02: Mohun Bagan 1 (Jose Barreto) drew with Vasco SC 1 (Rui Wanderley Weis).

Round VII:

09-01-02: Salgaocar SC 3 (Alvito D'Cunha, Bello Rasaq, Alex Ambrose) bt ITI 0.

10-01-02: HASC 0 lost to FC Kochin 1 (V. P. Shaji).

11-01-02: East Bengal 0 lost to Vasco SC 1 (Peter Rodrigues); Churchill Brothers 2 (Noel Wilson, Roque Barreto) bt Mahindra United 1 (Khalid Jamil).

12-01-02: Mohun Bagan 2 (Abdul Latif Seriki, Basudeb Mondal) bt JCT 0.

13-01-02: Tollygunge Agragami 2 (Sasthi Duley, Ashim Biswas) bt Punjab Police 1 (Praveen Kumar).

Round VIII:

16-01-02: Mohun Bagan 1 (Jose Barreto) bt Punjab Police 0.

17-01-02: Vasco SC 1 (Denzil Coutinho) bt Salgaocar SC 0.

19-01-02: FC Kochin 0 lost to Mahindra United 2 (Bala Usman, Austin Okolo); ITI 1 (Mohd. Salissu) bt JCT 0.

20-01-02: Tollygunge Agragami 0 lost to Churchill Brothers 4 (Yakubu Yusif 3, Somatai Shaiza); HASC 1 (Sunil Kumar) bt East Bengal 0.

Round IX:

23-01-02: Vasco SC 1 (Agnelo Colaco) lost to JCT 2 (Hardip Singh Gill 2); HASC 1 (Raja Baliev Nurlan) drew with Mahindra United 1 (Jules Alberto).

24-01-02: ITI 3 (Mike Okoro 3) bt Punjab Police 0; Mohun Bagan 2 (Jose Barreto 2) bt Churchill Brothers 1 (Abdul Ganiyu Saley); Salgaocar SC 4 (Eugene Gray 2, Sunday Seah 2) bt East Bengal 0.

25-01-02: Tollygunge Agragami 1 (Sasthi Duley) bt FC Kochin 0.

Round X:

27-01-02: ITI 3 (Mike Okoro, George Ekeh 2) bt Vasco SC 1 (Rui Wanderley Weis).

28-01-02: Churchill Brothers 6 (Abdul Ganiyu Saley 3, Yakubu Yusif 2, Inacio Afonso) bt HASC 0; Mahindra United 2 (Bala Usman, S. Venkatesh) bt Punjab Police 0; East Bengal 2 (Dipendu Biswas, Jiten Rai) drew with FC Kochin 2 (P. Kulothungan, E. Muhammed).

29-01-02: Tollygunge Agragami 2 (Akeem Abul Alem, Ashim Biswas) bt JCT 1 (Hardip Singh Gill).

30-0-02: Mohun Bagan 0 drew with Salgaocar SC 0.

Round XI:

20-02-02: Vasco SC 2 (Marcos Pereira 2) bt FC Kochin 0; East Bengal 2 (Suley Musah, Jo Paul Ancheri) bt Tollygunge Agragami 1 (Sasthi Duley); JCT 0 drew with Punjab Police 0; HASC 1 (Jimmy Mulisa) bt ITI 0.

21-02-02: Salgaocar SC 1 (Alvito D'Cunha) drew with Churchill Brothers 1 (Osumanu Husseini); Mahindra United 2 (S. Venkatesh, Austin Okolo) bt Mohun Bagan 0.

Round XII:

24-02-02: ITI 0 lost to East Bengal 1 (Chandan Das); Churchill Brothers 4 (Yakubu Yusif 2, Noel Wilson, Peter Mascarenhas) bt FC Kochin 1 (Niyas Rehman).

25-02-02: Mahindra United 1 (Abhishek Yadav) drew with JCT 1 (Surjit Singh); Vasco SC 2 (Rui Wanderely Weis 2) bt Mohun Bagan 1 (Abdul Latif Seriki); HASC 1 (Raja Baliev Nurlan) bt Punjab Police 0; Tollygunge Agragami 1 (Akeem Abul Alem) lost to Salgaocar SC 4 (Alex Ambrose, Sunday Seah 2, Majekodunmi Bolaji Olubiyi).

Round XIII: 28-02-02:

East Bengal 2 (Dipendu Biswas, Suley Musah) bt Mahindra United 1 (S. Venkatesh); ITI 1 (Mohd. Salissu) lost to Churchill Brothers 3 (Yakubu Yusif, Roque Barreto, Ratan Singh).

01-03-02: Punjab Police 1 (Gurinderpal Singh) lost to Vasco SC 2 (Angelo Jose Gomes, Rui Wanderley Weis); Tollygunge Agragami 3 (Akeem Abdul Alem 3) bt HASC 2 (Sunil Kumar, Daniar Aburaimov).

02-03-02: JCT 0 lost to Salgaocar SC 1 (Alex Ambrose); Mohun Bagan 3 (R. C. Prakash, Abdul Latif Seriki 2) bt FC Kochin 0.

Round XIV:

04-03-02: Tollygunge Agragami 1 (Akeem Abul Alem) bt Mahindra United 0.

05-03-02: Mohun Bagan 2 (Renedy Singh, Jose Barreto) bt HASC 1 (Jimmy Mulisa); Punjab Police 0 lost to Salgaocar SC 1 (Sunday Seah).

06-03-02: JCT 2 (Shaminder Singh, Balkar Singh) bt East Bengal 1 (Omolaja Olalekan); ITI 2 (Mohd. Salissu, Mike Okoro) bt FC Kochin 0; Churchill Brothers 0 drew with Vasco SC 0.

Round XV:

09-03-02: Vasco SC 1 (Marcos Pereira) bt Mahindra United 0.

10-03-02: JCT 1 (Ranjit Singh) drew with FC Kochin 1 (P. Kulothungan); Salgaocar SC 0 drew with HASC 0; Tollygunge Agragami 2 (Sasthi Duley, Moses Owira) lost to ITI 3 (Mohd. Salissu, Nitin Pradhan, Mike Okoro).

11-03-02: Mohun Bagan 1 (Jose Barreto) bt East Bengal 0; Churchill Brothers 5 (Yakubu Yusif 2, Roque Barreto, Sayed Amin Mousavi, Somatai Shaiza) bt Punjab Police 1 (Praveen Kumar).

Round XVI:

13-03-02: Punjab Police 1 (Gurinderpal Singh) bt FC Kochin 0; Salgaocar SC 1 (Majekodunmi Bolaji Olibiye) drew with Mahindra United 1 (Jules Alberto).

14-03-02: Tollygunge Agragami 1 (Ashim Biswas) lost to Vasco SC 2 (Rui Wanderley Weis, Marcos Pereira).

15-03-02: Mohun Bagan 2 (Abdul Latif Seriki, Jose Barreto) drew with ITI 2 (Mike Okoro, Syed Hussain).

16-03-02: HASC 2 (Jimmy Mulisa, Raja Baliev Nurlan) bt JCT 1 (Harvinder Singh).

21-03-02: Churchill Brothers 1 (Osumanu Husseini) bt East Bengal 0.

Round XVII:

18-03-02: Vasco SC 0 lost to East Bengal 1 (Jose Carlos da Silva).

19-03-02: FC Kochin 1 (P. Kulothungan) bt HASC 0; ITI 1 (John Kenneth Raju) drew with Salgaocar SC 1 (Dennis Carbal).

20-03-02: JCT 1 (Hardip Singh Saini) lost to Mohun Bagan 2 (R. C. Prakash, Uday Kumar Konar).

21-03-02: Punjab Police 0 drew with Tollygunge Agragami 0.

25-03-02: Mahindra United 2 (Mohd. Najeeb, Abhishek Yadav) lost to Churchill Brothers 3 (Yakubu Yusif 3).

Round XVIII:

23-03-02: JCT 2 (Hardip Singh Saini 2) bt ITI 1 (Mohd. Salissu); Salgaocar SC 3 (Alvito D'Cunha 2, Bruno Coutinho) bt Vasco SC 2 (Rui Wanderely Weis, Marcos Pereira).

26-03-02: Punjab Police 1 (Praveen Kumar) lost to Mohun Bagan 3 (Jose Barreto 2, Abdul Latif Seriki).

27-03-02: East Bengal 4 (Jose Carlos da Silva 2, Soumitra Chakraborty, Bijen Singh) bt HASC 0.

28-03-02: Mahindra United 1 (Austin Okolo) bt FC Kochin 0.

30-03-02: Churchill Brothers 2 (Yakubu Yusif, Somatai Shaiza) drew with Tollygunge Agragami 2 (Ashim Biswas, Moses Owira).

Round XIX: 29-03-02: Punjab Police 0 drew with JCT 0.

31-03-02: ITI 1 (George Ekeh) drew with HASC 0.

01-04-02: FC Kochin 0 lost to Vasco SC 1 (Jose Luciano); Mohun Bagan 1 (Jose Barreto) bt Mahindra United 0.

02-04-02: Churchill Brothers 1 (Yakubu Yusif) lost to Salgaocar SC 2 (Sunday Seah, Alex Ambrose).

03-04-02: Tollygunge Agragami 1 (Moses Owira) lost to East Bengal 5 (Omolaja Olalekan, Bijen Singh, Jose Carlos da Silva, Dipankar Roy 2).

Round XX:

05-04-02: HASC 0 lost to Vasco SC 1 (Satish Minz); Churchill Brothers 2 (Yakubu Yusif, Osumanu Husseini) bt JCT 0; Mahindra United 2 (S. Venkatesh, Abhishek Yadav) bt ITI 1 (Mohd. Salissu).

06-04-02: Tollygunge Agragami 1 (Sasthi Duley) lost to Mohun Bagan 2 (Jose Barreto, Uday Kumar Konar).

07-04-02: FC Kochin 2 (P. Kulothungan, K. Bijumon) bt Salgaocar SC 1 (Alex Ambrose); East Bengal 3 (Omolaja Olalekan 2, Dipendu Biswas) bt Punjab Police 1 (Praveen Kumar).

Round XXI:

09-04-02: Vasco SC 3 (Rui Wanderley Weis 2, Jose Luciano) bt ITI 0; HASC 0 lost to Churchill Brothers 1 (Yakubu Yusif).

10-04-02: JCT 1 (Hardip Singh Saini) bt Tollygunge Agragami 0.

11-04-02: Punjab Police 0 lost to Mahindra United 2 (Austin Okolo, Mohd. Najeeb); FC Kochin 0 lost to East Bengal 1 (Dipendu Biswas).

Round XXII:

15-04-02: East Bengal 1 (Jose Carlos da Silva) drew with Salgaocar SC 1 (Alex Ambrose); Mahindra United 0 lost to HASC 2 (Rajendra Prasad, Dayanand); JCT 2 (Hardip Singh Saini, Stephen Abarowei) bt Vasco SC 1 (Peter Rodrigues); FC Kochin 0 lost to Tollygunge Agragami 5 (Mehtab Hossain 2, Ashim Biswas, Akeem Abul Alem, Moses Owira); Punjab Police 2 (Kuldip Singh, Rajesh Kumar) bt ITI 1 (George Ekeh); Churchill Brothers 0 lost to Mohun Bagan 1 (Abdul Wasiu Saliu).