East Bengal asserts supremacy

The 108th edition of the tournament, sponsored by TVS Fiero, saw Kingfisher East Bengal retaining the title for the second successive time.

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

The East Bengal team, which won the IFA Shield.-

EVER since Mohun Bagan lifted the IFA Challenge Shield, humbling the British East York Regiment in 1911, the tournament has undergone various phases of degeneration and reconstruction. The Indian Football Association has fairly managed the annual contest involving the famed clubs of the country with only two breaks in the 110 years of its existence.

The 108th edition of the tournament, sponsored by TVS Fiero, saw Kingfisher East Bengal retaining the title for the second successive time. But the whole exercise, which was held from January 9 to 22, failed to strike a balance as most of the teams rested their key players. As it remained, the tournament being allocated within the interval in the National Football League, the participants dithered from going full steam. There was this question on the purpose of squeezing one tournament within the other and the whole process of planning the national calendar.

A general administrative apathy becomes apparent if one goes by the history of the IFA Shield. While Mohun Bagan's achievement in beating a British outfit became a celebrated chapter in the pantheon of the sport, the tournament preserved the essence of an international contest with regular participation of foreign clubs after India's independence. This exercise of inviting good foreign teams from across the continents made it a window of the world, giving the soccer-crazy city the necessary exposure to the higher standards of the game. The question of degeneration rises at this point. The city has seen big foreign clubs such as Penarol (Uruguay), PAS Club (Iran), Pyongyang City (Korea), Ararat Yerevan (USSR), the Uzbekistan giants Pakhtakor and Pavlador among others, but the foreign participation has appeared to wane both in content and quality over the years as the Indian standards fell to dismal depths.

Churchill Brother's Yakubu Yusif (No. 10) tries to get past East Bengal defenders Suley Musah (extreme right) and Arun Malhotra (No. 10) during the final.-

Things appeared to be positive in 2000 as the All India Football Federation organised a major international meet, the Millennium Cup, which brought in participation from across the globe. With the image of the battered sport getting a fillip in the international arena, the IFA went shopping overseas and succeeded in ensuring the participation of Palmeiras-B, the second team of the famed Brazilian club. Banking on Palmeiras-B, the 107th edition of the Shield (held late in 2001) sought to strike the glory of the past. But the famed visitor hardly looked in a mood to aid the euphoria and kept complaining about everything right from the start. The grumblings culminated in a major violence during the final against East Bengal. The match was abandoned, Palmeiras-B was scratched from the tournament by IFA and the title went to the city giant.

The AIFF, at the behest of the Asian Football Confederation, instituted a three-member committee to probe into the fiasco and everything went to the sleep-mode after the last exercise. There was a rude awakening a year later as the continental body, obviously annoyed with the inordinate delay in the probe, slapped a ban on all Indian affiliates from hosting foreign teams in invitational tournaments.

The 108th edition of the Shield thus became jinxed. Working in the shadow of the ban — the AIFF quickly recalled the committee to bring out a hasty report upholding its affiliate's decision and appeal against the AFC decree — the IFA found all its plans of reviving the tournament with a long list of foreign participation falling flat on its face. Adding to the misery were a few of the Indian clubs, which declined to participate in view of the new development. The line-up ultimately had the defending champion East Bengal leading a field of eight teams. While one of the city giants Mohun Bagan refused to play, citing a long list of injuries, Punjab team JCT Mills too pulled out in the last moment, leaving two Goan teams — Churchill Brothers and Vasco SC — and Chennai's Indian Bank as the only three outstation participants. Tollygunge Agragami and Kolkata Port Trust (KPT) were joined by one of the former champions Mohammedan Sporting while IFA wooed in Tata Football Academy just a day before the tournament started.

The initial group league phase remained fairly imbalanced as East Bengal, Churchill Brothers, Tollygunge Agragami and Indian Bank were clubbed together making Group `A' a virtual `group of death'. The other group was relatively easy having Mohammedan Sporting, TFA, Vasco SC and KPT to fight it out for the two semifinal berths.

Top: East Bengal's Suley Musah (left) is ecstatic after netting his team's first goal against Vasco SC in the semifinals.-Pics. S. PATRONOBISH

Tata Football Academy proved its worth as the premier training school for the budding footballers yet again with a commendable performance, which put the seniors to shame. TFA, presenting a fresh selection of talent, turned out the best showing in Group `B' and remained undefeated, netting five points to finish as the group leader. The Jamshedpur team, powered by its two immensely talented strikers Jerry Zirsangha and Malswama, beat the favourite Mohammedan Sporting 2-0 and later held Vasco and KPT goalless to make sure its route to the semifinals.

Mohammedan Sporting, fresh from reaching the semifinals in the Durand Cup in Delhi, proved a failure at home. Sporting, preparing for the II Division National Football League, received a jolt against TFA and fell to two second-session goals from Malswama and Zirsanga respectively.

Though it managed to beat Vasco 1-0 in the next match, the former champion (Sporting last lifted the Shield in 1971) was stopped in its tracks by local rival KPT. The match could not go the full length as the Mohammedan Sporting supporters, seeing their team held goalless till the injury-time in the second session, turned violent, venting their ire on the supervising officials and the opponent players. The IFA, later in an emergency meeting, upheld the goalless result and Sporting was out of the meet, making way for Vasco. The end analysis had Vasco and Sporting tied on four points each but the former made to the last four stage for having a superior goal difference.

Group `A' too had its pack of surprises. East Bengal, arriving fresh from winning the Durand Cup, stumbled at the second block losing 0-1 to Churchill Brothers. But the home favourite, which won its first match against Indian Bank 2-1, managed a similar scoreline against Agragami and made it to the semifinals. Churchill, drawing against Indian Bank (0-0) and Agragami (1-1), progressed as the runner-up with five points to its credit.

In the semifinals, East Bengal appeared to regain its rhythm, beating Vasco 2-0. Aiming for the fourth title of the season the local favourite netted a goal in each session, outplaying its bemused opponent. East Bengal found the target twice through defender Suley Musah and midfielder Jiten Rai. Rest<147,2,1>ing both its usual forwards, Nigerian Mike Okoro and Brazilian Gilmar Da Silva, the home team found the new forwardline — comprising part-timers Kalia Kulothungan and Trijit Das — failing to make much of the match and the team was bailed out by its unlikely strikers.

In the other semifinal, TFA commendably matched strength against the strong Churchill Brothers. The Goans went into the lead in the third minute through Kasif Jamal's goal. But TFA fought back admirably and got the equaliser 11 minutes later getting mideo Bhola Prasad to score with a powerful pile-driver. Churchill regained the lead in the 25th through its Nigerian striker Yakubu Yusif, off a penalty. But TFA was not daunted and fought back to equalise, again through a penalty, which was scored by defender Debabrata Roy. Churchill, however, had the last laugh as substitute Ratan Singh struck the winner in the 71st minute to end a well-contested encounter.

Churchill Brothers' forward Tiken Singh (white jersey) tries to dribble past the Tata Football Academy defenders in their semifinal match. — Pics. S. PATRONOBISH-Pics. S. PATRONOBISH

In the final it was `sudden death' for Churchill Brothers. The Goans fought on even terms with the local favourite but failed to repeat the group league scoreline. The two teams remained locked goalless for 120 minutes of regulation and extra time. Even the tie-breakers failed to break the deadlock which saw the two teams tied 4-4. East Bengal midfielder Sasthi Duley slotted the ball home signalling the `sudden death' for Churchill after the latter's Tiken Singh had seen his shot saved by the former's goalkeeper Sangram Mukherjee.

This was the 27th occasion East Bengal lifted the coveted trophy, which also meant the team won all the four tournaments that it participated in this season. Suley Musah, who excelled in an all-round performance for the winner, was adjudged the TVS man of the tournament. East Bengal received the winner's cheque of Rs. 6 lakhs while the runner-up Churchill Brothers took Rs. 3 lakhs.

The results:

Final: East Bengal (0) 5 bt Churchill Brothers (0) 4 in sudden death.

Semifinals: East Bengal 2 (Suley Musah 18th, Jiten Rai 83rd) bt Vasco SC 0; Churchill Brothers 3 (Kasif Jamal 3rd, Yakubu Yusif 25th, Ratan Singh 71st) bt Tata Football Academy 2 (Bhola Prasad 14th, Debabrata Roy 47th).