Doing it the Dempo way

THE centerpiece of Indian football's club competitions — the National Football League — is largely getting confined to two possibilities in matters of winning the crown — it is either a club from Goa or Bengal which triumphs at the end of the season.

Amitabha Das Sharma

Dempo Sports Club,Goa, with the NFL Trophy in Kozhikode, Kerala.-S. RAMESH KURUP

THE centerpiece of Indian football's club competitions — the National Football League — is largely getting confined to two possibilities in matters of winning the crown — it is either a club from Goa or Bengal which triumphs at the end of the season. This season, Goa's Dempo Sports Club did not do anything to change the situation. Dempo won the ninth edition of the tournament thereby unseating Kolkata giants Kingfisher East Bengal, which had won in the last two seasons.

The tournament, sponsored by the petroleum giant ONGC, marked the end of the hegemony of a limited few as Dempo added its name to a list of previous four winners. However, football administrators in the country should take note that there was no change in the monopoly enjoyed by Bengal and Goa clubs. They should spend considerably more energy, time and money in developing club football in other states.

This season saw the emergence of Dempo as the top club of the country. Having won the Federation Cup, the club stamped its authority by winning the NFL title. Even East Bengal, which won two international titles in addition to the NFL in the last two seasons, has been unable to achieve the `double' in the last few years, which has been achieved by Mohun Bagan alone.

The pain of the Federation Cup triumph — caused by the tragic demise of talented Brazilian striker Cristiano Junior in the final against Mohun Bagan — fuelled Dempo's resolve in the long journey through the NFL. Tragedies seemed to be a strong cause for motivation this season — Sporting Clube de Goa, which finished second, had its date with disaster in the middle of the tournament when the bus taking the team to Kolkata airport after playing Mohun Bagan in the third round overturned injuring coach Clifford Chukwama and 10 players. Though AIFF made a special provision allowing Sporting Clube to get players on loan, the team decided to go with its injured warriors and returned almost with its old side after a break of around three weeks.

Dudu Omagbemi of Sporting Clube de Goa, the best forward ofthe NFL, in action against SBT in Kozhikode.-S. PATRONOBISH

The latest edition of the NFL also saw a welcome break from the trend of the previous two seasons, when East Bengal had monopolised the tournament from start to finish. The competition ensured that the champion was decided only in the last round of the league. The leadership changed frequently making the double-tier league, comprising 132 matches, an interesting event to follow.

Defending champion East Bengal drew the opening match goalless against a rag-tag Mohun Bagan. With Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh inaugurating the event and the sponsor associating itself with the tournament from the beginning unlike in previous years, the tournament had a perfect setting. Top names such as Mahindra United and Sporting Clube de Goa had dithery starts and joined the defending champion in drawing their matches. This gave Dempo, runner up of the previous season, the pole position as the club defeated JCT Mills at home.

Chidi Edeh of Sporting Clube de Goa (in action against EastBengal) proved to be the perfect strike partner for DuduOmagbemi.-S. RAMESH KURUP

Dempo was undefeated till the sixth round. And, in the seventh round East Bengal caught up with it. At the end of the seventh round, Sporting Clube joined Dempo and East Bengal to make it a three-way race for the title. Sporting Clube, riding on Nigerian strikers MacPherlin Dudu Omagbami and Chidi Edeh, made its title intentions clear by thrashing Dempo 4-0 in the sixth round encounter. Omagbami and Edeh shared the four goals, which set the pace for the two to emerge as the most potent strike force of the tournament. While Omagbami's finishing was top class, Edeh stood out for his outstanding dribbling skills and for assisting his colleague.

Defending champions East Bengal assumed true colours in the third round and went on to win six matches on the trot. This was the longest winning run in the tournament. The club played four `away' matches in a row, drawing one and winning the remaining three matches. The first of East Bengal's good `away' run was in Goa, where it drew Fransa in the second round. The red-and-gold brigade then beat Churchill Brothers (2-0) and Vasco SC (3-0) before turning the tables on State Bank of Travancore with a 4-2 win at Kozhikode. With striker Baichung Bhutia and multi-role player Climax Lawrence hitting top form, the scoreline against SBT was the best East Bengal could manage in the `away' matches. East Bengal continued its domination at home as it won a further three matches at the Salt Lake Stadium, with the best showing being the 5-0 thrashing of Tollygunge Agragami.

At the end of the first phase of the tournament — consisting 11 rounds — East Bengal lead the field with 24 points while Dempo stood next tallying 21 points. The Panjim-based team encountered a slump between the sixth and eighth against local opponents. It lost consecutively against Sporting Clube and Fransa in the sixth and seventh rounds and drew the next match with Salgaocar to hand the lead over to East Bengal. Sporting Clube, which lost an extra match in comparison to Dempo, took the third spot.

Satish Kumar of Dempo was adjudged thebest goalkeeper of the tournament.-VIVEK BENDRE

The lead in the first stage turned out to be deceptive for East Bengal, which lost its midfield mainstay, Douglas Da Silva, to injury in the ninth round. The multi-role Brazilian, who held the team together, fractured his shin bone against Mahindra United and was ruled out of the season. East Bengal suffered its first loss of the tournament, going down to Dempo in the very next round. The team encountered more injury problems as the competition went on with the likes of Baichung Bhutia, Alvito D'Cunha and defender Dipak Mondal getting grounded to leave the team in a deplorable condition in the crucial stages. Despite having a strong reserve pool, East Bengal coach Subhas Bhowmick failed to find the right substitutes for the injured names and the team performance took a severe beating. East Bengal, jolted by defeats at home against Sporting Clube and Fransa in the 13th and 16th rounds, performed the worst in the last three rounds when it could net only one out of the possible nine points by drawing one and losing two matches.

Dempo, in contrast, was awesome in the home stretch. The club, taking a leaf out of East Bengal's first phase performance, won the last four rounds to win the title. Losing the 18th round match against East Bengal in Kolkata did appear a setback for Dempo. But the team, shepherded by an astute tactician in coach Armando Colaco, stepped out of the crisis and beat JCT Mills in Ludhiana and never looked back till the title was won. Nigerian Ranty Martins Soleye, assisted ably by R. C. Prakash, was Dempo's hero scoring 15 goals, more than half of the team's final tally of 27 goals.

The inconsistency bothering Sporting Clube occasionally in the earlier rounds of the tournament returned to haunt the club in the last round. The team, which led Dempo by a point in the penultimate round, performed miserably at home losing the last match against Mahindra United 1-3. Though the team missed the title by a whisker, Sporting Clube could take heart from Omagbemi's astounding 21 goals in the tournament, which led him to be named `Player of the Tournament.'

Mahindra United's defender Mahesh Gawli, named the best defender of the NFL,keeps East Bengal striker Alvito D'Cunha at bay.-PTI

Mahindra United, which finished fourth in the final standings, missed a good striker and lost out the race drawing half of the 22 matches it played. Coach Syed Nayeemuddin did his best disciplining the mega budget team but failed to instil in it the winning habit. The worst performance came from three-time champions Mohun Bagan. The club, riddled by infighting among its administrators, looked in shambles right from the start. Bagan, who replaced Subrata Bhattacharya with former coach Amal Dutta in desperation, was joined in its plight by former runner-up Churchill Brothers. The two met in the last round fighting to save relegation. The match was drawn 1-1 and the two tied on 23 points, but Mohun Bagan with a better goal difference escaped the gallows while Churchill Brothers went down. State Bank of Travancore, Vasco SC and Tollygunge Agragami were the other three teams that were relegated.

Climax Lawrence ofEast Bengal, the best midfielder of the NFL, in action against Dempo.-PTI

The tournament again emphasised that foreigners are the only recipe for success in Indian club football. There was no Indian name in the top five scorers as the likes of Omagbemi, Martins, Felix Ibrebru and Yakubu Yusif (Churchill Brothers) topped the list. Baichung Bhutia shouldered the country's cause and though he missed a few matches he became the highest Indian scorer with nine goals. Professionalism still remains a distant dream for many Indian footballers and the country needs many more Baichung Bhutias to solve the crisis.

Fox in the box from Lagos

THE strapping 20-year-old MacPherlin Dudu Omagbemi is the youngest striker in NFL's history to become the top scorer. Omagbemi, who comes from Nigeria's capital Lagos, dedicated the achievement to his club Sporting Clube de Goa. "The club has given me all the freedom to play good football," said Omagbemi, who is `Oma' to teammates and officials.

"It is good that I could surpass my own target of scoring 20 goals in the tournament," said Omagbeni, who finished with 21. But, he said that he is distressed that his club missed the NFL title narrowly.

Omagbemi, who had his initial training in Lagos in the academy of Okobaba FA, said it was a freak visit to India ("to see my uncle") that brought him to Goa. "I got enrolled with Sporting Clube and played the NFL for Dempo and Salgaocar in 2002 and 2003. The clubs had taken me on loan before my own club qualified."

According to Omagbeni, Goa has the right atmosphere for football. "There is peace and vibrancy in Goa but in Kolkata there is too much of politics in the game," said Omagbeni, who feels the lack of good academies is deterring the progress of Indian football.

Omagbemi said he nurtured dreams of playing in Europe but is not sure whether he will go there now as he has "got used to the game and the atmosphere" in India. He named Zinedine Zidane and Ronadinho as his all-time favourites. Omagbemi named Baichung Bhutia, R. C. Prakash, Climax Lawrence, Sebastian Endro, Alvito D'Cunha, his colleague Chidi Edeh and Ranty Martins as the players who have impressed him on the Indian scene.

Beyond the sidelines

THE NFL was not without its share of controversies. Refereeing in the tournament came under fire with teams from Kolkata and Goa cried hoarse about "biased" supervision. The first voice of dissent emerged from the land of the sport's administrative hub, Goa. The president of Fransa FC, `Mickey' Pacheco, threatened to pull his club out of the tournament complaining about biased refereeing after Fransa's ninth round loss against local rival Salgaocar SC in Goa. Pacheco alleged that the matches were being "fixed" by the referees and he threatened of complaining to the AIFF.

Not long after Fransa's voice of dissent had died out, a roar arose from Kolkata as all the three teams in the tournament — East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Tollygunge Agragami — came together off the field crying foul about "parochialism". While Agragami secretary Mantoo Ghosh issued a letter to the AIFF venting his ire at "poor refereeing damaging Agragami's prospects in the tournament", East Bengal coach Subhas Bhowmick aimed his attack straight at the AIFF secretariat. Bhowmick alleged that deliberate attempts were made by the administration to subvert the Kolkata sides. The new Mohun Bagan coach, Amal Dutta, who even sought the resignation of the AIFF office bearers for not doing enough to improve the standard of refereeing, joined Bhowmick later.

The national governing body of football rubbished the allegations and only called a meeting of the referees' committee to look into it. The AIFF also deputed Malaysian referees in the decisive stages, especially in the matches that had teams fighting for the title or relegation.

There was a different drama in the concluding stages of the tournament. With relegation knocking on the door, Churchill Brothers attacked the new tournament regulation that four teams will be relegated to the second division, unlike the usual practice of two teams going down. Churchill Brothers patron Churchill Alemao said his club would go to court if the AIFF remains firm on its decision to relegate four teams. "The decision to relegate four teams was contrary to the Asian Football Confederation's decision to have more than 12 teams in the NFL and if AIFF remains firm on its decision, then we will go to the court," said Alemao in a news conference.

The results

NFL 2004-05: Standings (played, won, drawn, lost, goals in favour, goals against and points): 1. Dempo SC 22-14-5-3-27-16-47; 2. Sporting Clube de Goa 22-14-3-5-46-23-45; 3. East Bengal 22-13-4-5-33-15-43; 4. Mahindra United 22-8-11-3-29-21-35; 5. Fransa FC 22-8-6-8-24-26-30; 6. Salgaocar SC 22-7-7-8-26-24-28; 7. JCT Mills 22-7-7-8-19-19-28; 8. Mohun Bagan 22-5-8-9-16-19-23; 9. Churchill Brothers 22-5-8-9-23-33-23; 10. Vasco SC 22-5-5-12-25-37-20; 11. State Bank of Travancore 22-4-6-12-24-34-18; 12. Tollygunge Agragami 22-3-8-11-20-45-17.

The results (home teams first): Round I: East Bengal drew Mohun Bagan 0-0; Vasco lost to Fransa 0-2; Salgaocar lost to State Bank of Travancore (SBT) 3-4; Mahindra United drew Churchill Brothers 0-0; Sporting Clube de Goa (SCG) drew Tollygunge Agragami 3-3; Dempo bt. JCT Mills 1-0. Round II: Vasco lost to Salgaocar 0-1; Churchill Bros. lost to Tollygunge Agragami 1-2; Mohun Bagan lost to Mahindra Utd. 0-1; Dempo bt. SBT 1-0; Fransa drew East Bengal 0-0; SCG bt JCT 2-0; Round III: Salgaocar bt. Tolly Agragami 5-1; Churchill Bros. lost to East Bengal 0-2; Mahindra Utd. lost to Dempo 1-2; Vasco drew SBT 0-0; Fransa lost to JCT 0-1; Mohun Bagan bt. SCG 1-0. Round IV: Vasco lost to East Bengal 0-3; Tolly Agragami drew Dempo 0-0; Fransa bt. SBT 2-0; Churchill Bros lost to Mohun Bagan 1-2; JCT bt. Salgaocar 3-1; Mahindra Utd. drew SCG 1-1. Round V: SBT lost to East Bengal 2-4; Tollygunge Agragami bt. Fransa 2-1; Dempo bt. Mohun Bagan 2-0; JCT drew Vasco 0-0; Mahindra Utd. Bt. Salgaocar 1-0; SCG lost to Churchill Brothers 1-3. Round VI: Mohun Bagan lost to Fransa 1-2; East Bengal bt JCT 2-0; SBT drew Tolly Agragami 0-0; Vasco lost to Mahindra Utd 2-3; Churchill Bros. drew Salgaocar 1-1; Dempo lost to SCG 0-4. Round VII: Mohun Bagan bt. JCT 1-0; Dempo lost to Fransa 0-1; Mahindra Utd. drew Tolly Agragami 1-1; SBT bt. Churchill Bros 3-1; East Bengal bt. Salgaocar 1-0; Vasco lost to SCG 0-3. Round VIII: Fransa lost to SCG 1-4; Mahindra Utd. drew JCT 1-1; East Bengal bt. Tolly Agragami 5-0; Churchill Bros. bt. Vasco 2-1; Mohun Bagan drew SBT 1-1; Dempo drew Salgaocar 0-0. Round IX: East Bengal drew Mahindra Utd. 1-1; SCG bt. SBT 3-1; JCT bt. Churchill Bros. 3-0; Vasco lost to Dempo 1-2; Salgaocar bt. Fransa 2-1; Mohun Bagan bt. Tolly Agragami 2-1.

Round X: JCT drew Tolly Agragami 1-1; Mahindra Utd. bt. SBT 3-1; Dempo bt. East Bengal 3-2; Mohun Bagan lost to Vasco 0-1; Churchill Bros. drew Fransa 1-1; Salgaocar lost to SCG 0-1.

Round XI: Tolly Agragami lost to Vasco 1-2; JCT bt. SBT 1-0; Fransa drew Mahindra Utd. 2-2; SCG lost to East Bengal 1-2; Mohun Bagan drew Salgaocar 0-0; Dempo drew Churchill Bros 0-0.

Round XII: Tolly Agragami bt. SBT 1-0; Salgaocar lost to Churchill Bros 0-1; Fransa bt. Mohun Bagan 2-1; Mahindra Utd. drew Vasco 1-1; SCG lost to Dempo 1-2; JCT Mills lost to East Bengal 0-1. Round XIII: Salgaocar bt. Mohun Bagan 1-0; Mahindra Utd. lost to Fransa 0-1; Churchill Bros. lost to Dempo 1-2; Vasco bt. Tolly Agragami 5-0; SBT lost to JCT 1-2; East Bengal lost to SCG 2-3. Round XIV: Fransa drew Tolly Agragami 0-0; Salgaocar drew Mahindra Utd. 2-2; Mohun Bagan drew Dempo 0-0; East Bengal bt. SBT 2-0; Vasco lost to JCT 1-2; Churchill Bros lost to SCG 0-4.

Bhaichung Bhutia of East Bengal (in action against Tollygunge) was the NFL's Indian top-scorer.-S. PATRONOBISH

Round XV: Salgaocar lost to Dempo 2-3; Tolly Agragami lost to East Bengal 0-1; JCT drew Mahindra Utd. 1-1; Vasco drew Churchill Bros 1-1; SCG bt. Fransa 2-0; SBT drew Mohun Bagan 1-1. Round XVI: Salgaocar bt. Vasco 1-0; JCT lost to SCG 0-1; Mahindra Utd. bt. Mohun Bagan 2-0; Tolly Agragami lost to Churchill Brothers 2-4; SBT lost to Dempo 1-2; East Bengal lost to Fransa 0-1. Round XVII: SBT bt. Vasco 4-1; Tolly Agragami lost to Salgaocar 1-2; Dempo drew Mahindra Utd. 0-0; East Bengal bt. Churchill Bros. 2-0; JCT drew Fransa 0-0; SCG bt. Mohun Bagan 1-0. Round XVIII: SBT lost to Mahindra Utd. 1-2; Vasco drew Mohun Bagan 1-1; Fransa bt. Churchill Bros 2-1; SCG bt. Salgaocar 1-0; Tolly Agragami lost to JCT 1-3; East Bengal bt. Dempo 2-1. Round XIX: Fransa lost to Vasco 2-3; Churchill Bros. bt. Mahindra Utd 2-1; Mohun Bagan lost to East Bengal 0-1; SBT drew Salgaocar 1-1; Tolly Agragami drew SCG 2-2; JCT lost to Dempo 0-1. Round XX: Churchill Bros. drew SBT 1-1; SCG bt. Vasco 5-2; Tolly Agragami drew Mahindra Utd. 1-1; JCT drew Mohun Bagan 0-0; Fransa lost to Dempo 1-2; Salgaocar drew East Bengal 0-0. Round XXI: SBT lost to SCG 0-2; Churchill Bros. drew JCT 1-1; Mahindra Utd. bt East Bengal 1-0; Tolly Agragami lost to Mohun Bagan 0-4; Dempo bt. Vasco 2-0; Fransa drew Salgaocar 2-2. Round XXII: Mohun Bagan drew Churchill Bros. 1-1; Salgaocar bt. JCT 2-0; East Bengal Club lost to Vasco 1-3; Dempo bt. Tolly Agragami 2-0; SBT bt. Fransa 2-0; SCG lost to Mahindra Utd. 1-3.

Top scorers: 1. MacPherlin Dudu Omagbemi (SCG) 21 goals; 2. Ranty Martins Soleye (Dempo) 15; 3. Felix Ibrebru (Salgaocar) 13; 4. Yakubu Yusif (CB) 12; 5. Marcos Pereira (Churchill Brothers) 10; 6. Baichung Bhutia (East Bengal), Flavio de Oliveira Rodrigues, Sidney Santana Rodrigues (both Vasco) 9; 9. Chidi Edeh (SCG) 8; 10. Climax Lawrence (E. Bengal) 7.

Hat-tricks: 1. Dudu Omagbemi for SCG against Fransa at Nehru Stadium, Goa (round VIII); 2. Ranty Martins for Dempo against East Bengal at the Nehru Stadium, Goa (round X); 3. Yakubu Yusif for Churchill Brothers against Sporting Clube de Goa at the Nehru Stadium, Goa (round V); 4. Sunil Chetri for Mohun Bagan against Tollygunge Agragami at the Salt Lake Stadium (round XXI).

Biggest wins: 1. East Bengal bt. Tollygunge Agragami 5-0 at Kolkata (round VIII). 2. Vasco bt. Tollygunge Agragami 5-0 at Goa (round XIII). 3. Salgaocar bt. Tollygunge Agragami 5-1 at Goa (round III). 4. Mohun Bagan bt. Tollygunge Agragami 4-0 at Kolkata (round XXI).

Most goals in a match: 1. SBT bt. Salgaocar 4-3 at Goa (round I). 2. Sporting Clube de Goa bt. Vasco 5-2 at Goa (round XX).

Felix Ibrebru of Salgaocar (extreme left, in action against Mohun Bagan)scored 13 goals in the NFL to help his team to third place.-S. PATRONOBISH

Individual awards: ONGC Player of the Tournament: MacPherlin Dudu Omagbemi (Sporting Clube de Goa); Best goalkeeper: Satish Kumar (Dempo SC); Best defender: Mahesh Gawli (Mahindra United); Best midfielder: Climax Lawrence (East Bengal); Best forward: MacPherlin Dudu Omagbemi (Sporting Clube).

Fair play award: JCT Mills FC.

NFL roll of honour (winner/runner-up): 1996-97 JCT Mills/Churchill Brothers; 1997-98 Mohun Bagan/East Bengal; 1998-99 Salgaocar SC/East Bengal; 1999-2000 Mohun Bagan/Churchill Brothers; 2000-01 East Bengal/Mohun Bagan; 2001-02 Mohun Bagan/Churchill Brothers; 2002-03 East Bengal/Salgaocar; 2003-04 East Bengal/Dempo, 2004-05 Dempo SC/Sporting Clube de Goa.