Foreign hand augurs well

Celebration time. A jubilant Mohun Bagan team with the Federation Cup.-S. PATRONOBISH

With foreign coaches taking charge of some of the major clubs in the country, Indian football has been witness to new strategies and tactics on the field. This new trend appears to be contributing to the development of the game in the country, writes Amitabha Das Sharma.

The tie-breaker is much despised in football. Not many teams are known to favour this method of determining the winner in a knock-out format. But if one were to ask Mohun Bagan's new Brazilian coach Robson Mattos, he will definitely have something good to say about the tie-breaker, especially after his team's victory in the Federation Cup, sponsored by Peerless.

Mohun Bagan won three out of its four matches in the tournament via the tie-breaker. It may be true that luck, rather than merit, plays a big role in this method of deciding the winner, but succeeding in three consecutive tie-breakers is something outstanding. In the end, the title triumph justified Mohun Bagan's efficiency in crunch situations, for the teams it faced in the last three stages leading to the victory were all heavyweights from Goa.

Bagan first defeated Churchill Brothers in the quarterfinals, then disposed of Dempo Sports Club in the semifinals before beating Sporting Clube de Goa in the final. The Goan team's efforts were nixed following three misses in the shootout.

The Federation Cup succeeded in bringing about some visible changes, both in content and approach. As a first step, the matches were scheduled for a late evening start. The decision was evidently dictated by the `prime time' interest of the broadcaster — Zee Sports. The commercial objectives notwithstanding, the decision prompted a change in the long-standing tradition of an afternoon start. This was a bold step taken with the sole aim of wooing television viewers to football.

The other change was the demonstration of new strategies and tactics by the teams in the fray. This was largely due to the new trend in Indian football of employing foreign coaches.

Mohun Bagan fans carry the Player of the Tournament, Baichung Bhutia.-PTI

In the last few years there has been a change in the thinking of the clubs. No doubt, the overriding urge to go in for foreign players in an attempt to seek immediate success has been a deterrent to nurturing domestic talent. But the clubs recruiting foreign coaches definitely seems to be contributing to the development of the game in the country. And with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) assigning Englishman Bob Houghton to lead the football development programme in the country, the clubs appear to be picking up the cue.

Out of the 16 teams that participated in the tournament, four had foreign coaches. Sporting Clube de Goa was coached by Nigerian Clifford Chukwuma, while Churchill Brothers was under the charge of Moroccan Karim Bencherifa. The two Kolkata giants, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, were coached by Brazilians Carlos Pereira and Mattos respectively.

One of the positives to emerge from this trend of appointing foreign coaches was that the teams had attained greater levels of fitness. Interestingly, fitness forms an important part of the teams' training programmes.

Teams such as Churchill Brothers, Dempo and Sporting Clube showed greater stamina and speed when compared with the sides from Kolkata. As for Mohun Bagan, what really tilted the balance in its favour was the presence of the two strikers — Baichung Bhutia and Brazilian Jose Barreto.

George Ekeh (left) and Odafe Onyeka Okolie of Churchill Brothers celebrate after scoring a goal against Air-India.-PTI

Bhutia, who rescinded his decision to end his international career earlier in the season, and Barreto formed such a combination that the opposing teams appeared to be under extra pressure looking for the apt defensive bulwark.

While Barreto, who did not appear to be totally fit, preferred to play as a withdrawn forward, Bhutia galvanized the Bagan attacks, recreating the brilliance that once earned him the tag as one of the greatest Indian forwards. He scored four goals — the highest by any player in the tournament.

Bagan would not have reached the title round had Bhutia not scored two successive equalisers — the second coming in the 88th minute — against Dempo. But, interestingly, the striker was not used in the tie-breakers.

On the other hand, Barreto was coach Mattos's first choice for the shoot-outs. In the first of the tie-breakers that Bagan was involved in, against Churchill Brothers, Barreto missed his shot. But in the next two, he was on target as Bagan successfully converted 11 out of 13 attempts in the three tie-breakers.

For Bagan it was its 12th Federation Cup title, while for Bhutia it was his first. The Most Valuable Player of the Tournament award, in the end, seemed to justify all that he had done in Mohun Bagan's rise to prominence.

In a diverse field, the most notable team to exit in the first round was Viva Kerala, which was made up of a band of youthful footballers gleaned mainly from the universities. The team displayed an open and free-flowing game and earned the applause of its opponent Mohun Bagan, which won 4-1. Among the other first round losers were three National Premier League campaigners — JCT Mills, Air-India and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited SC.

The quarterfinal match between Mahindra and Mahindra, which has the highest budget in Indian football and is coached by Derrick Pareira, and Mohammedan Sporting, coached by Subhas Bhowmick, was a contest of tact and strategy. The match was decided in the last four minutes that saw three goals being scored. Mahindras emerged winner by the odd goal in three.

Bagan scripted a victory against Karim Bencherifa's Churchill Brothers, while Dempo put out East Bengal with the help of Ranti Martins' 86th minute goal.

In the semifinals, Sporting Clube avenged its loss against Mahindras in the final last year. Dudu Omagbemi, the talismanic Nigerian striker, sent Mahindras packing with his 72nd minute goal.

In the other semifinal, Bagan had to work much harder to see Dempo off in the sudden death. The match was fiercely contested and a free-for-all over an infringement in the 61st minute saw Ranti Martins (Dempo) and P. Lalawmpuia (Bagan) being expelled.

Mahindras won the third place beating Dempo in the only other tie-breaker of the tournament where Mohun Bagan was not involved.

In the final, against Sporting Clube, Bagan held on till the end after scoring the equaliser through Brazilian defender Favio Vidal in the 28th minute. Then came the shoot-out and Bagan's victory.

With so much action, the Federation Cup seemed like a perfect prelude to the National Football League.