Dempo's pyrrhic victory

WITH 11 minutes of play left in the final of the 26th Federation Cup Football tournament between Dempo Sports Club, Goa, and Mohun Bagan, Kolkata, the 15,000 assembled at Bangalore's Sree Kanteerava Stadium witnessed the cycle of life — ups and downs, beauty and ugliness, celebration and mourning — being enacted, almost grotesquely, in the passage of a minute.

AVINASH NAIR

The Dempo Sports Club, Goa which won the Federation Cup. — Pic. G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR-

WITH 11 minutes of play left in the final of the 26th Federation Cup Football tournament between Dempo Sports Club, Goa, and Mohun Bagan, Kolkata, the 15,000 assembled at Bangalore's Sree Kanteerava Stadium witnessed the cycle of life — ups and downs, beauty and ugliness, celebration and mourning — being enacted, almost grotesquely, in the passage of a minute.

Cristiano de Lima Junior, Dempo's Brazilian striker, met a long ball from his deep defence and was on his way with a beautiful run that reminded one and all of his illustrious countrymen who have penned poetry with the ball. At the end of his run, Cristiano did what Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and co. do best — send the ball into the net in a glorious moment. Onrushing Mohun Bagan goalkeeper Subrata Paul was beaten to the ball and in sheer desperation flayed his hand at the striker catching Cristiano around the neck. An ugly football foul, one thought, as Cristiano staggered a few paces and then collapsed on the ground. Only after the match did everyone realise that in a brief instant they had seen a 25-year-old youngster in his last act in life — scoring a goal.

With the ball in the Mohun Bagan net for a second time in the match, a section of the stands erupted in joyous celebrations, which soon turned into arched eyebrows as Cristiano slumped on the ground and was attended by a host of players from both teams besides a physio. The sight of fellow Dempo striker Ronty Martins kneeling in prayer and the ambulance to take Cristiano to the hospital only caused more panic. Only after the remaining 11 minutes elapsed without a change in the scoreline could one take stock of what happened to Cristiano.

Brushing aside worst fears, when media persons rushed towards the Dempo bench after the match the tension there was palpable. Soon, the whispers trickled in confirming the death! The absence of celebrations in the Dempo camp at the awards function and Chief Minister N. Dharam Singh's announcement of Rs one lakh as compensation for the next of the kin of Cristiano were drowned in the gloom in the stadium. The joy of victory was drowned in sorrow and tears.

The twin strikes by Cristiano proved the death-knell for Mohun Bagan's title aspirations. The 11-time champions have had two disastrous years. They finished ninth in the last edition of the National Football League (NFL), came second best to arch rivals East Bengal in the Durand Cup final and then even lost to Eveready in the Kolkata league. But with East Bengal knocked out of the tournament in the early round, it appeared that Mohun Bagan was ready for good times yet again considering that the team's strike force had showed signs that they had settled down as a unit.

But Cristiano scripted another tale altogether. Having struck a goal in each of the three earlier outings in the tournament, Cristiano was the `marked' man for Mohun Bagan coach Subrata Bhattacharya, who deployed a defender each on Cristiano and Ronty Martins, the hat-trick man in Dempo's 4-3 semifinal win over Tollygunge Agragami.

The final started with Bagan's own Brazilian, Roberto Mendes Silva, splitting Dempo's defence two times but nothing came out of these moves. Cristiano celebrated the two escapes with a goal of his own. The hard working midfielder Riston Rodrigues floated into the box and the clean-shaven Cristiano rose above the defence to head home to put his team ahead at the break.

Mohun Bagan's goal-keeper Subrata Paul (left) and Noel Wilson (No. 8) try to put the ball to safety after a dangerous foray from Cristiano Junior in the final. Cristiano scored both the goals forthe winner before collapsing on the field. -- Pic. G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR-

"Come on... we need to attack more," was reportedly the last words of Cristiano's pep talk to his team-mates during the lemon break. Sure enough, in the second half, the Goan attacks came in waves.

Substitute R. C. Prakash's free kick saw a Jose Colaco header coming off the defence. Then, two times in quick succession, Cristiano was thwarted by Bagan's stopper Mehrajuddin Wadoo. Bagan was handicapped by the absence of veteran Basudeb Mondal due to injury. Young Jerry Zirsanga also could not play for Bagan following his two yellow card offences earlier in the tournament.

To make matters worse for Bagan, referee Maheshwaran Balu of Karnataka, who did not have the best of matches, slapped a red card on pony-tailed Noel Wilson. Almost immediately after Bagan was reduced to ten men came Dempo's second goal and the tragedy.

Play continued after Cristiano was rushed away in an ambulance. Roberto Silva went down in the Dempo box. Bagan's appeal for a penalty was turned down and with it went whatever little hopes the Kolkata giants had of reducing the margin.

Dempo, who had finished runner-up twice in the tournament losing to East Bengal in 1996 and to Mohun Bagan in 2001, had won India's equivalent of the FA Cup for the first time. But, the whole team was engulfed in gloom.

Dempo and Mohun Bagan had contrasting paths to the final. While it virtually rained goals in the first semifinal, where Dempo outsmarted Kolkata's Tollygunge Agragami 4-3, Bagan could manage only an extra-time match winner against a plucky Sporting Club de Goa in the second one. Bagan's midfielder Tomba Singh sprinted with the ball from the centre line in the 107th minute and unleashed a 30-yard cracker that brooked no reply from Luis Barretto under the Sporting Club goal.

Ronty Martins (left) on way to his hat-trick in the semifinal between Dempo and Tollygunge Agragami. Dempo won 4-3. -- Pic. G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR-

Dempo played some entertaining football in its semifinal and goals came thick and fast with Tollygunge being quick on the counter attack. Ronty Martins' hat-trick, the only one of the tournament, sealed the game in Dempo's favour after Cristiano had earlier cancelled out a 14th minute Tollygunge strike for the Goans. The semifinal witnessed a Beckham-style goal — a 30-yard free kick strike by Suley Musah of Tollygunge — very seldom seen in Indian football.

Excluding the semifinals and the final, only one other match in the tournament — between star-studded East Bengal and local favourites Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) — dished out quality football. East Bengal had to dig deep for a 1-0 win in the first round of the 16-team tournament. The talented Alvito D'Cunha scored the match winner in the 83rd minute after Bhaichung Bhutia had dented the HAL defence two times in his inimitable way.

East Bengal, however, did not progress much and was upset in the very next round by Sporting Club de Goa with captain Macpherlin Dudu scoring the match winner in the 88th minute. The Goan team, which had scalped another Kolkata giant and previous year's runner-up Mohammedan Sporting in the first round, thus avenged its 0-4 loss to East Bengal in the Durand Cup.

Tomba Singh, who scored the lone goal for Mohun Bagan in extra-time, tries to beat Felip Gomes of Sporting Club de Goa in the semifinals. -- Pic. G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR-

Fransa Football Club was another team from Goa that impressed. Fransa, coached by Norbert Gonsalves, sent holders Mahindra United, Mumbai, packing in the opening round of the tournament. However, in the very next round, they met their match in Tollygunge, which had knocked out former champion Salgaocar on the opening day of the tournament. Tollygunge prevailed in the tie-breaker (5-2) after sharing two goals at full-time.

The tie-breaker also sealed the fate of Goan side Vasco SC, which lost to fellow Goans Churchill Brothers in the first round. Dempo got the better of Churchill Brothers in the next round. Runner-up Mohun Bagan came up with some scintillating football in the second round defeating Jagjit Cotton Textiles (JCT), Phagwara, 4-1.

The quality of refereeing in the tournament, though, was anything but scintillating. The referees, all of whom are in the FIFA panel, were pretty mediocre to say the least with K. Shankar and M. Balu spoiling the flow of the game with their constant whistling. While a few glaring fouls from top teams went unpunished, others from lower-rung teams were booked.

The tournament comprised the 12 NFL teams along with the top four of the NFL Second Division. The fixtures, however, raised everybody's eyebrows with five Goan teams pooled together in the top half and three of the five Kolkata teams — Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting — clubbed in the bottom half.

The results

Final: Dempo 2 (Cristiano Junior 2) bt Mohun Bagan 0.

Semi-finals: Dempo 4 (Cristiano, Ronty Martins 3) bt Tollygunge Agragami 3 (Surajit Bose, Suley Musah, Awoemi Isiaka); Mohun Bagan 1 (Tomba Singh) bt Sporting Club de Goa 0 (in extra time).

Quarter-finals: Tollygunge 3 bt Fransa FC (Goa) 0; Dempo 1 bt Churchill Brothers 0; Mohun Bagan 4 bt JCT 1; Sporting Club 1 bt East Bengal 0.

First round: Fransa 3 bt Mahindra United (Mumbai) 2; Tollygunge 5 bt Salgaocar 2 (via tie-breaker; full time 1-1); Dempo 3 bt Eveready (Kolkata) 1; Churchill Brothers 8 bt Vasco SC (Goa) 7 (via tie-breaker); Mohun Bagan 1 bt Indian Bank (Chennai) 0; JCT 2 bt SBT 1; East Bengal 1 bt HAL 0; Sporting Club 2 bt Mohammedan Sporting (Kolkata) 0.