The rechristening of the National Football League, amidst much fanfare in 2007-08, promised to usher in a new era of Indian football, bringing in professionalism, visibility and money.
However, the AFC-backed, AIFF-managed I-League has failed in this endeavor. (The Rs. 70 lakh winner’s purse doesn’t cover even the recruitment cost of one quality foreign player.) And so another re-tweaking is on the cards.
The 2012-13 edition — spanning eight months, 182 matches, but only six cities — saw Churchill Brothers continue the Goan hegemony (seven League titles in a row). It beat Air India 3-0 in Pune on Sunday and ended the season on 55 points.
Stacked largely with local talents, the team relied on its unity — players often talk about the familial feeling in I-League’s only family-owned club — and the shrewd tactical acumen of technical director Subhash Bhowmick to upset title favourite East Bengal and record five-time winner Dempo SC.
Churchill won its second league title with a game to spare, but it was hit hard, at the halfway stage, with the sudden departure of the Lebanese duo, Bilal Najjarine and Akram Moghrabi, and the injury to senior Brazilian playmaker Roberto ‘Beto’ da Silva, the only big name in the squad.
However, Bhowmick was quick to re-jig his resources, and the loan signing of India skipper Sunil Chhetri, who had joined Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon B earlier in the season, and Afghan international Belal Arezou, during the winter break, revitalised the campaign.
The back-line functioned admirably, with outstanding performances from D. Ravanan, Denzil Franco and 37-year-old goalkeeper Sandip Nandy, and Churchill had the second best defensive record (22 goals conceded) behind East Bengal (18), which finished third.
Poor striking form
While, the Kolkata team was afflicted with poor striking form (44 goals), losing one and drawing five of its last seven games, the Red Machines, usually playing with two front men and Beto in a free advanced position, found the net 56 times — the most in the competition.
Gabonese international Henri Antchouet finished with 14 strikes, while Beto scored 13 — impressive, but far behind leader Ranti Martins’ (Prayag) 27 goals.
For the 15th straight time, the League had a foreign golden shoe winner, drawing attention to the country’s lack of a quality goal-poacher. 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 AIFF’s plan to increase the number of foreign players per team to five from four will worsen matters. Clubs will look for quick-fix solutions rather than give Indian strikers an extended run.
The results: United Sikkim 0 lost to Mohun Bagan 3 (N. Chettri 6, Odafa 67, Tolgey 87), East Bengal 0 lost to Shillong Lajong 1 (Taisuke 6), Dempo SC 2 (Sueoka pen-20, A. Pereira 90) beat Salgaocar 1 (Obatola 15), Air India 0 lost to Churchill Brothers 3 (Bineesh 38, Vales 89, Antchouet 90).