No charm in I-League

The jubilant Churchill Brothers Sports Club after winning the I-League.-

Despite the presence of foreign players, the local flavour formed the backbone of the I-League winner, Churchill Brothers, under the astute leadership of Subhash Bhowmick. By Ayon Sengupta.

There’s more despair than hope. The I-League, in its sixth edition, has failed to have an all-India presence and despite the welcome addition of teams from the north-east (the football hotbed over the past decade), the event essentially remains a Goa-Kolkata affair. The two traditional football centres accounted for eight of the 14 clubs in the competition. At least, it was a democratic distribution here, with both Goa and Kolkata sending in four teams each. The promotion of Mohammedan Sporting from I-League Division II will tilt the balance in Kolkata’s favour the next turn.

The AIFF and its managing partner IMG-Reliance did very little to market and promote the eight-month long season and though a record number of 75 games were telecast live, very few knew about it. Unearthly kick-off times (often at 2 p.m. at the peak of the Indian summer, during weekdays) ensured little footfalls in the stands.

Devoid of a title sponsor, the League failed to provide an attractive or even an adequate winner’s purse and a lot of clubs are now finding it increasingly difficult to justify the ever-increasing expenses in meeting astronomical player salaries. Churchill Brothers, which finished on top with a tally of 55 points, has already indicated a reduction in its budget and other clubs in Goa and Kolkata are expected to follow suit.

Despite the concerns over the financial viability, the League did manage to attract quality foreign players this time, with Costa Rican World Cupper Carlos Hernandez (Prayag United) leading the charge. The 31-year-old moved to Kolkata after spending five seasons in the lucrative Australian A-League and impressed all with his silken touches and absolute mastery from set-pieces. Former Arsenal and Tottenham player Rohan Ricketts (Dempo), Churchill Brothers’ Lebanese internationals Bilal Najjarin and Akram Moghrabi, Sporting Clube’s Spanish defender Angel Berlanga and Shillong Lajong’s Portuguese teenager Edinho Junior (on loan from Blackburn Rovers) were the other big ticket arrivals.

However, it was the local flavour that formed the backbone of the League winner and under the astute leadership of Subhash Bhowmick the likes of Lenny Rodrigues, Denzil Franco, D. Ravanan, Sandip Nandy and Bineesh Balan rose to the challenge. Churchill, indeed, was a surprise victor, seeing off the challenge from favourite East Bengal and record five-time champion Dempo SC.

Finding a perfect balance between attack and defence, the Goan side scored freely — 56 times, the most in the competition — and was equally vigilant in defence. Conceding just 22 goals, it had the second best defensive record in the championship, only behind East Bengal (18). The Kolkata side, boasting a settled look, however, lost its scoring boots towards the end. It drew five and lost one of its last seven games and could finish only third, behind another surprise package Pune FC.

Indian football’s poster boy, Baichung Bhutia, announcing his arrival as a club owner with United Sikkim looked far from comfortable in his new role. Despite the heavy crowd support at its home game at the scenic Paljor Stadium in Gangtok, the team failed miserably, picking up only 15 points and was duly relegated.

For the 15th straight occasion, the League had a foreign Golden Shoe winner, Ranti Martins of Nigeria (26 goals, for Prayag United), drawing notice to the lack of a quality goal-poacher among Indians. C. K. Vineeth (Prayag) was India’s best with seven goals. Joaquim Abranches (Dempo), Bineesh Balan (Churchill) and Francisco Fernandes (Salgaocar) scored six each. The parent body’s plan to increase the number of foreign players per team to five from four will only add to the problem. Clubs will look for short-range solutions rather than give Indian strikers an extended run.