Another one in Churchill’s kitty

On cloud nine... Churchill Brothers’ players celebrate with the trophy.-PICS: S. SUBRAMANIUM

Okolie Odafe, the man behind the Goan outfit’s win, has emerged as the best advertisement for professional football in India, setting new benchmarks in technical excellence. It wasn’t surprising that he was chosen the ‘Player of the Tournament’. By Vijay Lokapally.

Okolie Odafe, the 24-year-old footballer from Nigeria, brought dignity to an otherwise poorly organised Durand Cup. The third oldest football tournament in the world suffered from the substandard organising abilities of a committee that remained hostile towards the media and the spectators. It was Odafe who entertained the few spectators who had paid to watch the final.

A few months ago, the Chief National Coach, Bob Houghton, must have had a compelling reason to ridicule, among others, the Durand Cup. The Englishman had observed that the top players of the country need not waste time by playing in domestic tournaments. “If you are serious about qualifying for the World Cup, then you should forget playing nonsensical and stupid tournaments like the Santosh Trophy, Durand Cup and IFA Shield,” he said.

It is not without reason that the Durand Cup and the IFA Shield do not figure anymore in the All India Football Federation (AIFF) calendar. Observers believe there is no place for such tournaments in modern football. The introduction of the I-League has only diminished the importance of these domestic tournaments.

It is a pity indeed since the Durand Cup was always a most eagerly-awaited event. Today, it is but a pale shadow of its glorious past. “Our esteemed guest from the media” was indeed a welcome change as one walked into the Ambedkar Stadium on the day of the final. And it was primarily due to Odafe’s brilliance on the turf that the football lovers at the venue forgot all their discomforts.

The IFA Shield and the Durand Cup have amply demonstrated the growing gap between the local talent and the foreigners. Players like Odafe, Edeh Chidi, Jose Ramirez Baretto, Ogba Kalu and Roberto Silva have proved unstoppable, time and again exposing the weakness of the opposition.

No wonder Churchill Brothers, when faced with the choice of picking either Odafe or the coach-in-charge, opted for the player and released the coach. Odafe, who had differences with the coach, justified the high fee he receives by single-handedly steering his team to victory in the IFA Shield 2009 and the Durand Cup 2009. The opposition in the final of both tournaments was Mohun Bagan.

Noted coach Subhash Bhowmick was lavish in his praise of Odafe. “I have seen Chima Okerie in his prime. He had speed, power and great shooting ability. He terrorised the defenders with his presence. However, Odafe gives sleepless nights to the defenders not because of his powerful body but because of his tremendous technical ability. He has sudden acceleration, great variation in his dodging ability, unbelievable shooting power and pinpoint accuracy. Another important thing is his clear reading of the match situation. Odafe knows when to raise the bar and when the opponent is slipping up,” Bhowmick was quoted as saying in indianfootball.com.

Okolie Odafe... the ’Player of the Tournament’ exults with the Durand Cup.-

On his spectacular hat-trick in Churchill Brothers’ 3-1 win over Mohun Bagan in the Durand Cup final, Odafe said with pride, “I knew the match was going to be a huge challenge for us. It indeed was. There was too much talk about the IFA Shield (of how Mohun Bagan missed Barreto and Chidi in the final). As you can see, they both played here (in the Durand Cup) and believe me, it was great fun to beat their full side.”

Odafe truly believes in performing on the pitch. “I don’t like talking big before a match. I know some people talk big before the match. I have always believed in speaking through my performance,” Odafe said after leaving his mark on the final.

Churchill Brothers was the best team in the tournament because Odafe was its striker. Mohun Bagan made it to the title clash courtesy Chidi, who consistently dominated the opposition. His two goals in the semifinals against defending champion Mahindra United, which lost 1-2, was a just indication of Chidi’s form.

He kept up the good work in the final by scoring in the extra time to put Mohun Bagan ahead. But then his goal only spurred Odafe, who buried the Kolkata team with three goals in the span of nine minutes. It was one of the finest performances by an individual in a domestic football final in a long, long time. “I was only doing my job,” gushed Odafe, as he gleefully obliged requests for autographs and photographs from fans after the match.

The friendly Nigerian has emerged as the best advertisement for professional football in India, setting new benchmarks in technical excellence. It was not surprising that Odafe was chosen the ‘Player of the Tournament’. He truly deserved the title. As did Churchill Brothers, the proud winner of the IFA Shield and the Durand Cup.

THE RESULTS

Final: Churchill Brothers beat Mohun Bagan 3-1.

Semifinals: Mohun Bagan beat Mahindra United 2-1; Churchill Brothers beat Dempo 2-1.

League — Group I: Clube de Goa beat Assam Riflles 2-0; Churchill Brothers beat Clube de Goa 1-0; Churchill Brothers drew with Assam Rifles 1-1.

Group II: JCT beat ONGC 1-0; Mohun Bagan beat ONGC 5-1; Mohun Bagan beat JCT 2-0.

Group III: Air India beat Army XI 3-0; Dempo beat Air India 4-1; Dempo bt Army XI 1-0.

Group IV: Mahindra United drew with Lajong 0-0; Lajong beat East Bengal 1-0; Mahindra United beat East Bengal 2-0.