Dempo surges ahead

Mohun Bagan skipper Baichung Bhutia tries to get past his marker, Tutu George of Viva Kerala at Kozhikode. Bagan won the encounter 2-0.-PICS: S. RAMESH KURUP

The inaugural I-League has just crossed the halfway stage, and the proceedings so far have confirmed the domination of the foreign strikers. S. R. Suryanarayan reports.

After 11 seasons of National Football League, Indian football reached its first stage of professionalism with the launch of the I-League this season (2007-08). It was in keeping with the recommendations of the Asian Football Confederation (ACF).

The AFC, for long, has been maintaining that India is a giant in Asian football, and that it has to wake up to take stock of the situation and give the sport in the continent a big thrust. But then, there is a gulf between what the AFC perceives and the ground reality of Indian football, and the fans in the country will agree about that. However, all will agree on one aspect — that Indian football will head in the right direction if it becomes professional.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF), which earlier made clear its intention to cut down on the ‘foreign’ players in the national league in order to ensure that the national team does not suffer for want of development of native players who could fill up the crucial slots in the side, went back on its promise for the inaugural I-League. The AIFF, in fact, has suggested that each of the 10 teams in the fray can recruit four foreign players instead of three, though only three can be fielded in a match. Not many are in favour of this though. Armando Colaco, the Dempo SC coach, is one of the main critics of this AIFF move. He is of the view that it is a retrograde step as it would stunt development of Indian football. Give opportunities to Indian players as far as possible was his plea.

For one who helped Dempo win the NFL title last season, Colaco has a point.

Dempo’s performance in the I-League has been remarkable. The Goan club is in the lead with 27 points after 11 of the 18 matches have been played in the League — a clear five points ahead of the second-placed JCT. Dempo is the only unbeaten side at this stage of the I-League and is all set to repeat its performance of last year.

Ironically, Dempo’s strength is its three foreign recruits — strikers Ranty Martins Solaye, Chide Edeh (both Nigerians) and midfielder Roberto Mendes Silva (Brazil). Still there is a good blend of Indian talent in this bunch.

It has been great going for Dempo with eight wins. The 2-0 victory against Churchill Brothers is the one that Dempo will cherish the most. The match saw the rivalry between the Goan teams extending to the national plane. Churchill Brothers had defeated Dempo in the Goan professional league, but the NFL champion turned things around in the I-League.

What is most surprising about the I-League is that, while the Goan clubs’ supremacy remains, the Kolkata clubs, once the glamour teams of Indian football, have been gradually losing ground. East Bengal, placed ninth out of 10 teams, is fighting for survival, while Mohun Bagan, in fourth place, is in a none-too-comfortable position. The shake-up in the I-League line-up could not have been more drastic.

Viva Kerala’s Ghanaian recruit, Wisdom Abbey. He was one of the foreign players to impress.-

One of the reasons for the poor performances of the Kolkata clubs is believed to be inadequate preparation. They had not planned well for the I-League. In terms of effort, nothing extra went into their preparations in the run-up to the tournament. Having played an exhaustive domestic league that concluded only a few days before the start of the I-League, the Kolkata teams found that many of their key players had burnt out.

As always, in keeping with the performances of the teams, the fortunes of the officials too are affected. For instance, East Bengal’s vice-president Manas Mukherjee resigned, seeking a “revamp of the club administration” after the team lost 0-1 to Sporting Clube in the New Year. The reverse was East Bengal’s fifth successive loss in the League. Indiscipline was another problem the team management had to grapple with.

East Bengal depended too much on Brazilian Edmilson Marques and this affected the team’s performance. His Indian partner Ashim Biswas was found wanting both in form and fitness. The midfield has been under-performing despite the presence of the South African World Cup player McDonald Mukansi and India’s Mehrajuddin Wadoo and Mehtab Hussain. The team’s defence is totally dependent on the Nigerian Majek Bolaji.

Mohun Bagan picked up late after a shaky start. The combination of Baichung Bhutia, the highest scorer among Indian strikers, Brazilian Jose Barreto and the young P. Lalawmpuia has been inspiring, much to the joy of the team’s Brazilian coach Carlos Roberto Pereira. Brazilian Douglas Da Silva, S. Venkatesh, defenders N. S. Manju and Nigerian Peter Odafe are the other key members of Mohun Bagan.

Once proud of its ‘desi’ look, JCT has realised the significance of ‘foreign’ recruits in fielding a winning combination. It has four foreign players now — two Nigerians and two Brazilians.

At the turn of the New Year, JCT had tied with Dempo on points at the top of the table. However, the Phagwara outfit’s defeat to Mahindra United was a setback. In this phase, Dempo achieved a draw against JCT. The match played in New Delhi was not of a high quality. It was marked by drab midfield motions.

At the Mumbai Cooperage, the local teams took a heavy beating. Dempo walloped Air-India 4-1, while Churchill Brothers swamped Mahindra United 5-1. Both the Goan teams came up with attacking football and expectedly Ranty Martins (Dempo) and Odafe Okolie (Churchill) were the outstanding players in these two matches.

Mahindra United, however, seemed to have woken up in the New Year. Its 3-1 defeat of JCT should spur it on.

Air-India has always stressed on collective effort. Coach Bimal Ghosh has been making the best of the limited resources at his disposal. But it is his eye for spotting talent that has been the key to Air-India’s continuing run in this League. Paresh Shivalkar provided Air-India the winning moment with a goal that saw the Mumbai team upset East Bengal. Sanju Pradhan proved an ideal foil to Shivalkar.

Viva Kerala, the only team from the south of the Vindhyas in the League, has been a fighting unit. It is even with Sporting Clube de Goa in seventh position with 12 points.

Viva had a promising start with a stunning 3-1 victory, in its second match, against Mohun Bagan in Kolkata, and had collected eight points from its first five matches. It, however, failed to keep up the momentum thereafter.

Ghanaian Wisdom Abbey has been the revelation of the team, which also has Nigerian Baba Tunde. The small-made man from Ghana has not only scored five goals but has also been good at creating openings. He was twice named Man of the Match. Still Viva’s 0-2 defeat to Mohun Bagan in the return match, in front of a big crowd at the Corporation Stadium in Kozhikode, has been a big let-down to its fans.

The action so far in the I-League has confirmed the domination of the foreign strikers. Odafe Onyoko (Churchill Brothers) with 16 goals, Escobar (JCT) and Ranty Martins (Dempo) nine each, Mboyi Iyomi (Churchill Brothers) and Edmilson (East Bengal) seven each adorn the scorers’ list. India’s Baichung Bhutia comes only after them.

With inputs from Amitabha Das Sharma, Nandakumar Marar and P. K. Ajith Kumar.