East Bengal is the champion

THE rise and fall of the two Bengal giants formed the essence of the recently concluded National Football League. If East Bengal rose to grab the title, holder Mohun Bagan slipped to finish a distant seventh.

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

THE rise and fall of the two Bengal giants formed the essence of the recently concluded National Football League. If East Bengal rose to grab the title, holder Mohun Bagan slipped to finish a distant seventh. Still, after seven years of National League, this much is clear after East Bengal's second title-triumph: Bengal and the clubs of the State have a special place in the making of Indian football. Last year it was Mohun Bagan and earlier it was East Bengal. In fact, in the last four years, the winner has been one of these two clubs and they, between them, have won the League title five times. JCT Mills, Phagwara, had won it in the inaugural year and Salgaocar Club, Goa, in the third year.

The victorious East Bengal team. — Pic. S. PATRONOBISH-

Earlier, when the Santosh Trophy National championship had a lot of importance and winning the glittering trophy was considered the ultimate recognition at the national level, it was Bengal again which was in the forefront. It is a different matter that the Bengal team comprises the best talent of India, thanks to the way the clubs there lure away players. May be the residential clause, which was introduced in the national championship last year to open an option for a player to represent his home State rather than the adopted State, could change the equation. But then, does anyone really bother about the Santosh Trophy anymore or at least to the extent it was held in esteem earlier?

A similar story of a Bengal dominance is clearly unfolding then in what is the richest football programme in the country, the NFL, sponsored this time by the Petroleum sector under the prefix `OIL-PSU', with the winner taking Rs. 40 lakhs, the runner-up half of that and prize money right to the sixth place. There is enough money then to be grabbed and if the recipe for success is to get the best collection of players from various parts of the country, then it is the same for preparing a team for the NFL. Additionally there is the option for each club to pick four foreign players with an eye on results. There was a time when a team such as JCT had believed that NFL should be fought with desi players and stoutly kept away from blending its strength with foreign blood. But even that club from rustic Punjab did not take long to realise the wisdom of having foreigners for key areas like getting goals!

So, from Africa, Europe and Latin America they come to win money and acclaim. In their own country they would be nowhere near the World Cup selection process but in India they earn price tags that can be mind-boggling and turn stars in their own right. Like Yusif Yakubu from Ghana, who, for the second year running, earned the distinction of being the top-scorer as a member of Churchill Brothers, Goa, to bag the Rs. 50,000 cash prize.

Then there was Jose Barreto, the Brazilian, whose name became a password for goals and a craze in Kolkata after his spectacular striking abilities, playing for Mohun Bagan. He was the kingpin in Bagan's success plans, but this time, despite his presence and that of the Indian star, Bhaichung Bhutia, the club failed miserably to finish seventh. Proof perhaps that a team's strength lay not in the collection of talent but in the right balance. Losing key players in transfers, indifferent attitude of sponsors, intra-club problems that led to the celebrated coach Subrata Bhattacharya getting booted out and not the least the injuries that plagued the performance of Bhutia, all combined to pile up agony for Bagan.

That way East Bengal was different. Under Subash Bhowmick, in his days a tearaway forward, the club could show results — four tournament wins in as many outings before the prized catch of them all, the NFL title. Picking players with an eye on balance and recruiting foreigners with proven ability, Bhowmick could produce an amalgam that could show solidity in defence, resourcefulness in the middle and rapier touch in front.

East Bengal's progress in the NFL thus was a flight in fantasy, with 13 wins and four draws for a start. Only JCT gave it a jolt and then Mahindra United delayed the coronation. Surely, if Barreto's heroics had catapulted Bagan to the top once, then it was another Brazilian Douglas da Silva who was the ace of the pack this time. These Brazilians have a way to catch focus, just as their famed countrymen do on the World stage. With players such as Ghanaian Suley Musah and Nigerian Mike Okoro also alongside, East Bengal's march to the pole seemed just a matter of fact. The interest or contest actually was for places downwards and that remained till the last goal was scored — there were five matches scheduled on the final day.

And, like last year, it was a Goan club, Salgaocar this time, which took the runner-up spot. The tussle was between it and another Goan rival, Vasco, just as the toss up was between JCT and Churchill Brothers for the fourth place. The surprise was the slide of Mohun Bagan to seventh place behind promoted side Dempo. Bagan's performance touched the nadir on the final day when it lost to HAL, which, along with ITI, suffered relegation. Making up the rear were Mahindra United, Tollygunge and Chennai's Indian Bank.

With each club boasting of foreign talent, most of them good strikers, it was no surprise that the goal scorers' list had them right there at the top. The only Indian to feature in the top five was Ashim Biswas of Tollygunge Agragami and that too with three foreign players. As for Bhutia, Jo Paul Ancheri and I. M. Vijayan, the men who matter when it comes to India's stakes in international tournament, and also other Indian regulars such as Hardeep Gill and Abhshek Yadav, they were all listed far away.

What begs the question then is how has this foreign influx helped Indian football at all? League supporters will point to the good show of Ashim and Alvito D'Cunha. But there is really no debate on these matters, when the underlying factor is only to grab the moola and not churn patriotic fervour. In fact, releasing the Indian players for national duty always used to be a bone of contention between the AIFF and the clubs. But this time a near-month long pause was brought into the schedule in January to help the country prepare for the SAFF Cup tournament as also pre-Olympic and Asian Cup preliminaries. To that extent it must be said that the AIFF showed better understanding of ground realities, something that led to near-smooth conduct of the league.

While the NFL can be said to have broadened the football base in Bengal and Goa, both States together have seven teams in the league, the surprise was the non-presence of any club from Kerala, which boasted of having the country's first professional club, FC Kochin. By the end of the current league, Bangalore has also been eclipsed with both ITI and HAL making stunning exits. It is amazing that both teams should have courted disaster with such consistency. HAL had the ignominy of suffering the highest margin defeat (8-0) against Vasco, while ITI was thrashed 6-1 by Indian Bank for its worst defeat. Their poor run meant the pressure was off to a large extent on Indian Bank, which had returned to the league after a gap. Not that the Chennai side fared badly. In fact, it started off well, Syed Sabir Pasha in sparkling form initially before injuries bogged him down. Indian Bank had held East Bengal to a 3-3 draw at home, a match in which the Sri Lankan import Kasun Nadika Jeyasuriya notched up a hat-trick. In fact, Jeyasuriya and his countrymate Imran Mohammed were the pillars of strength for Indian Bank. By the later stages, the bankside kept sliding but by then it had ensured it was out of the relegation zone.

With the NFL now a rivalry essentially between Bengal and Goan clubs there were a few close matches involving the representatives of the two blocks. The Churchill Brothers-Mohun Bagan match was one such where the Kolkata giants, rather the Bhutia-Barreto combination, demolished the Goan team to silence over 20,000 spectators at the Nehru stadium in Margao. But Churchill did earn the distinction of stopping the winning streak of East Bengal later. The rivalry of teams from the same State also had its play. In the Churchill-Salgaocar drawn match, things came to such pass that the man who was hailed for being the top-scorer, Yakubu Yusif, went to the extent of settling scores off the field by assaulting Salgaocar goalkeeper Kalyan Chaubey. Yakubu earned a one-match suspension.

Dempo's initial rise, even taking pole position once, was as eyecatching as Bagan's early show. Vasco's determined efforts matched the fighting qualities of Salgaocar. Ashim Biswas's rallying act for Tollygunge, add to it the exploits of JCT, Churchill Brothers, Mahendra United and Indian Bank, and the concoction helped produce over 350 goals. But East Bengal strode ahead of them all in keeping with Bhowmick's aim of 10 big wins — it was 15 by the end — to provide the lustre.