Salgaocar owes it to Bencherifa

Celebration time...Salgaocar players hoist coach Karim Bencherifa after winning the I-League.-PTI

The coach from Morocco did an excellent job of motivating his players and instilling confidence in them. He turned players such as Luciano Sabrosa, Francis Fernandes, Rocus Lamare, Gilbert Oliveira and Rino Anto among others into a winning force, writes Amitabha Das Sharma.

It was all about Karim Bencherifa's innovative football. The Moroccan coach moulded a bunch of relative ‘nobodies' into a champion outfit as Salgaocar Sports Club took home the most coveted crown in Indian club football, the I-League.

It all seemed ordained as the coach, whose two previous teams — Churchill Brothers and Mohun Bagan — had finished runner-up, should emerge on top in his third attempt, with Salgaocar which landed the I-League title for the second time in 11 years (after 1998-99).

There was little of star content in the team that Bencherifa commanded. Nevertheless it bristled with raw talent, which the Moroccan forged into a force that blew the rest of the clubs out of contention. This was the prime factor in Salgaocar emerging from the shadow of the defending champion, Dempo Sports Club, and reaching the peak of the inter-club contest.

It was a notable feat indeed considering that Dempo, which arguably is the most decorated outfit in the country, had led Goa's dominance in the I-League in the past seven seasons, barring in 2005-06 when the now defunct Mahindra United won the title.

The supremacy of the Goan clubs was all about discipline, determination and technical brilliance.

Salgaocar under Bencherifa showed enough courage to stick to a plan and attained its goal by overcoming plenty of odds in a format that saw 26 rounds and 182 matches being played over a period of six months.

Going by the number of championships won, Bengal seemed to have the edge over Goa, ruling the roost in the knock-out tournaments ahead of the I-League. Bengal started the season by winning the Santosh Trophy after a gap of 11 years before Chirag United SC, the third force in Kolkata's soccer hierarchy, became the Durand Cup winner. This was followed by East Bengal's Federation Cup triumph before the club attained the local supremacy by winning the Calcutta Football League.

The I-League brought about a different approach, testing the teams' inherent strength to last a gruelling fixture that challenged their consistency. A look at the history of the I-League (or the National Football League as it was known before) would bring out the factors determining a team's real attributes. Factors like selection of foreign players, good bench strength, managing the problem of suspensions (yellow and red cards) and ensuring a good injury rehabilitation programme have proved decisive in determining the winners.

Three coaches with varying approaches figured prominently at different stages of the league. Trevor James Morgan, an Englishman settled in Australia, ruled the first stage, guiding East Bengal to an enviable record of remaining unbeaten in 13 consecutive matches. This gave Morgan the pole position at the end of the first phase, while Salgaocar under Bencherifa maintained a close chase. Reaping a rich harvest with his “keep it simple” philosophy for the greater part of the season, Morgan found his players losing steam later in the tournament with the AFC Cup assignment overlapping. As Salgaocar recuperated from the travails of a gruelling fixture, utilising the rest within the rounds, East Bengal and holder Dempo were put through the grind during their continental commitments. East Bengal also played the IFA Shield, which was slotted during the month-long break in the I-League.

Armando Colaco, who has the best credentials as coach with four titles under his belt, could not overcome the jitters that Dempo seemed to encounter all through. While the club made it to the knock-out stage of the AFC Cup, it stuttered in crucial matches in the I-League.

Doing justice to his reputation as an astute planner, Bencherifa made the best use of the available resources. This also meant giving bigger responsibilities to seemingly unknown names in the team. The coach did an excellent job of motivating his players and instilling confidence in them. He turned players such as Luciano Sabrosa, Francis Fernandes, Rocus Lamare, Gilbert Oliveira and Rino Anto among others into a winning force.

Salgaocar's achievement is truly reflected in the record that it created — winning 18 of its 26 matches, the highest in the 14-team format.

Morgan also brought East Bengal's performance alive with his fine game-reading and innovative training methods. But he failed to sustain the level of excellence, overwhelmed as he was by recurrent card problems and injuries that left him with a fatigued side in the end.

The title was won and lost in the couple of rounds played in Goa at the fag end of the league. East Bengal, missing some of its key players owing to suspension and injuries, squandered a two-goal lead before losing 2-3 to Salgaocar. Looking well on course to win the title, East Bengal messed up its defending as Salgaocar scored three late goals.

The bruising match at home, against Dempo, where East Bengal picked up two red cards before winning 3-2 had impacted the Kolkata club in its match against Salgaocar.

Morgan's problem continued as East Bengal lost the next match against Churchill Brothers 1-2 before ending its final away campaign with a 1-1 draw against HAL SC in Bengaluru. Just one point out of a possible nine meant East Bengal would have finished much below in the league table had not Dempo lost its final fixture 2-4 to HAL. Redeeming some of the lost ground by beating local opponent Chirag United in the last match, East Bengal forged a one-point advantage and ensured the runner-up position to salvage some pride. Dempo finished third and Churchill Brothers ended fourth.

In the contest for the Golden Boot (highest scorer) Churchill Brothers' Onyeka Okolie Odafe of Nigeria lost out to compatriot and long time challenger Ranti Martins of Dempo. Martin, who scored seven goals in Dempo's incredible 14-0 win against Air India, had a tally of 30 goals. Odafa, with 25 goals, had to be content with the ‘silver boot'.

JCT, the champion in the inaugural edition in 1996-97, was relegated. Also dropping out of the elite was ONGC.