Shrugging off the bridesmaid tag

Champions at last... Churchill Brothers’ players rejoice after winning the I-League title.-Pics: ARVIND TENGSE

Churchill Brothers made a late but strong charge for the crown, putting paid to the aspirations of Mohun Bagan and Sporting Clube. Amitabha Das Sharma reports.

The second edition of the I-League — a signpost of the country’s effort to make the game professional — was significant for just two reasons: a) the emergence of a new champion and b) a foreign coach entering the roll of honour. That apart, the tournament ended as a regular exercise with barely anything to justify its status.

Churchill Brothers finally managed to shake off the tag of perennial bridesmaid by winning the title. Of all the teams playing in the tournament, which was previously called the National Football League, the Goan giant had to wait the longest for the title. In the 13-year history of the tournament (it started in 1996-97), Churchill Brothers finished runner-up four times. And helping the team overcome the jinx this time was its Serbian coach, Zoran Djordjevic, who made the family-run club translate its potential into a title.

By winning the I-League trophy, Churchill Brothers ended the comeback bid of a former champion, Mohun Bagan, which was definitely the other team to make a mark in the tournament with a record 10-match winning streak. Incidentally, Karim Bencherifa of Morocco, who had shepherded Churchill Brothers to the runner-up title last season, was the Mohun Bagan coach this time.

Bencherifa was once again involved in a close finish though this time he ended up on the winning side as Mohun Bagan took the second position by pipping Sporting Clube de Goa on goal difference after the two sides had tied on points. Last year, Churchill Brothers under the Moroccan was beaten to the title by Dempo SC on goal difference.

Just as what Djordjevic had done to Churchill Brothers, Bencherifa used his good management skills to transform Mohun Bagan into a winning outfit. Before the I-League title was decided, the Kolkata side was the most successful team in the season having won the 110-year-old domestic league (Calcutta Football League) and the blue riband event, the Federation Cup. Both Churchill Brothers and Mohun Bagan gained from employing skilled and adequately qualified foreign professional coaches.

Churchill Brothers made a late but strong charge for the crown, putting paid to the aspirations of Mohun Bagan and Sporting Clube, both of which led the table at different stages of the tournament.

The defending champion, Dempo SC, which reigned supreme in the previous two seasons, winning both the final NFL (2006-07) and the inaugural I-League (2007-08), made an abortive bid for a hat-trick of titles. It could never recreate the finesse of the previous seasons though its coach Armando Colaco had retained the majority of the triumphant squad.

In a long tournament as the I-League (two legs, 132 matches), it is consistency that decides the title. Churchill Brothers was definitely the best on this count, winning 13, drawing seven and losing just two of its 22 games. However, there were a few matches that shaped the champion outfit’s destiny, and one such encounter was against Vasco SC in the Round of 16 in Margao on February 20. Churchill Brothers pummelled its local rival Vasco 9-1. The huge win boosted Churchill Brothers’ goal tally and put it ahead of Mohun Bagan when the two sides were tied on points in the penultimate round.

Churchill Brothers’ Nigerian striker Onyeka Okoli Odafe scored six, including a sequence of three straight goals, in the match and cemented his place at the top of the scorers’ list. Odafe, who won the golden boot last season, reaffirmed his status as the most formidable forward in the I-League. The Nigerian finished with 24 goals, including two hat-tricks, in the tournament. Odafe’s other hat-trick also came against Vasco in the first phase of the tournament, which Churchill Brothers won 4-1.

The first phase was dominated by Sporting Clube de Goa, which won eight of its 11 outings to finish on top with 25 points. Playing a good number of matches at home Sporting Clube scored a few memorable wins to enjoy a four-point lead over Mohun Bagan at the halfway stage.

Strike force... Onyeka Okoli Odafe of Churchill Brothers who emerged the top scorer of the tournament.-

Mohun Bagan made a remarkable recovery to power itself to the second spot in the first phase. Just when all looked lost for the team, which hit the cellar without a win in the first five rounds, Mohun Bagan made a great turnaround, posting victories in its remaining six matches in the first phase.

Mohun Bagan’s winning run lasted till the 15th round before it lost in the 16th to its traditional rival East Bengal. Netting 21 points Mohun Bagan overtook Churchill Brothers (20 points) which had had won five matches, drawn five and lost one.

Churchill Brothers’ decisive transformation came in the second phase. Riding on the performances of its strikers Odafe and Felix Chimaowku — who scored 11 goals to earn the third position after Dempo’s Ranty Martins Soleye (12 goals) in the final scoring list — Churchill Brothers came back strongly in the tournament. Odafe and Felix were well supported in the midfield by Ogba Kalu Nanna, who himself scored six goals. The difference the three Nigerians made was clear from the fact that they together accounted for 41 of the team’s total of 53 goals.

None of the other teams in the League could really come up with an effective attacking combination to match Churchill Brothers. Dempo’s super striker Ranty Martins was good but not all that effective alongside Roberto Mendes Silva, while Elijah Junior and Nathaniel Amos could not do much to lend Sporting Clube’s attack the edge.

Mahindra did not find much from the combination of Chidi Edeh and Douhou Pierre while East Bengal could manage only brief spells of brilliance from its striking pair of Yusif Yakubu of Ghana and Sunil Chhetri of India. Chhetri (nine goals) emerged as the highest scorer among the Indian players.

East Bengal and Mahindra United, both former champions, had forgettable outings but managed to stay in the top half of the 12-team league, finishing fifth and sixth respectively.

Goal difference decided positions 2-3, 4-5, 6-7 as three pairs of teams were tied on points. Mohun Bagan finished second, while Sporting Clube was placed third. Dempo nudged ahead of Mahindra United to the fourth spot, while East Bengal beat Mumbai FC, which was promoted from the second division, to the sixth place.

Mohammedan Sporting and Vasco SC were relegated to the second division.