Entering the business end of the season, four clubs are in with a chance to clinch the sixth edition of the I-League.
After five-time league champions Dempo were knocked off their perch by Prayag United in the 14th round of India’s premier club competition, the road to glory has become wide open for new league leaders Churchill Brothers, second placed Pune FC and East Bengal.
Dempo slipped to fourth position with their 29-year-old striker Rohan Ricketts, who is no doubt, a classy player and was in the news for his outburst on Twitter against Dempo coach Armando Colaco being finally released by the club after he was found to have breached club discipline by launching into a verbal tirade against Armando Colaco and the club through social networking. The former Arsenal and Tottenham striker was served with a 48-hour suspension notice in which he was asked to explain his outburst and also tender an apology to the coach and club. Ricketts met club chairman Shrinivas Dempo and agreed that his relationship with Armando was beyond repair.
Ricketts met Dempo twice and explained his position. He is understood to have got a patient hearing but in the end Ricketts felt his mind is not up to the Dempo challenge. He did not feel like continuing especially after his now much-publicized fall out with the coach. Lot of talks are doing the rounds about what the real issue is or was, as the foreign player felt threatened when a fan left an incriminating note on his car and also punctured it. A compensation package is believed to have been worked out and replacement done with the signing of Johnny Menyongar on loan from Lajong.
Costa Rican World Cupper Carlos Hernandes’s set-piece brilliance was enough to earn the men in purple a much-needed victory at their own backyard. But more importantly it helped Churchill Brothers eclipse their Goan rivals at the top of the heap. And, Subhash Bhowmick’s wards did it in style.
Prayag coach Eelco Schattorie stressed that his team had got the benefits of sticking to a plan and looked a very happy man after his side’s impressive victory over Dempo. They were rewarded for their dominance in the second half with a late goal from Carlos Hernandez from a set-piece.
A brace of goals from Akram Moghrabi and goals from Steven Dias, Henry Antchouet, Ajay Singh and Roberto Mendes Silva (Beto) capped off a five-star performance by the one-time league winners against an out of sorts Shillong Lajong outfit.
While East Bengal rode Chidi Edeh’s three goals to keep their ship in the right direction against lowly Salgaocar, there was no stopping Pune FC as they extended their winning streak to six by edging past relegation threatened United Sikkim 2-1 courtesy a James Moga injury-time winner. Pune are second at the moment with also 28 points, but since Churchill beat them earlier, they are behind the Goa team.
In the other match of the round, ONGC beat Pailan Arrows 3-0 to extend their unbeaten run under Santosh Kashyap to three.
Meanwhile, following the three-year ban on Mohun Bagan, the team will not play in the I-League till the 2016-17 season, which will lead to a massive loss of sponsorship and income. Bagan may become a spent force like Mohammedan Sporting and the passion of a large section of fans in Kolkata will dwindle.
It will make the I-League’s track record even more dismal. Both Mahindra United and JCT have shut shop in recent seasons. There are no representatives from all of North or South India in the league anymore. If the passion of the Kolkata Derby also fizzles out, it may be the death knell of Indian football.
Mohun Bagan-East Bengal matches are ranked by FIFA amongst the top 50 Derby games in world football. TV channels and sponsors are attracted to Indian football because of them.
By banning the club with the biggest fan base, the AIFF seems to be killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
“Judging by performance alone, Kolkata cubs are not progressing and serious introspection must be done for the development of Bengal football. Otherwise we will end up like Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh,” said Subrata Dutta, senior vice-president of All Indian Football Federation.
To that Shaji Prabhakaran, FIFA Development Officer South-East Asia, added from New Delhi: “Bengal and India’s most famous clubs have not really changed with time. It is still difficult to match their popularity quotient but they would have continued to be leaders in Indian football if their management struck a balance between being passionate and professional.”
No Kolkata team has won the I-League, now in its sixth edition. East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Prayag United are reportedly having the highest budgets in the current league, all in the range of Rs 12-14 crore. Bagan skipper Odafa Okolie and Tolgay are said to be earning over Rs 2 crore this season.
Pointing out that three of the teams with the highest budgets (Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and United SC) are from Kolkata, Bhaichung Bhutia too didn’t agree that Kolkata clubs don’t matter anymore. What bothers the United Sikkim co-owner instead is that that only Kolkata and Goa remain relevant in Indian football. “That’s why it is important for clubs such as United Sikkim, Shillong Lajong and Pune FC stay in the I-League,” he said. “At the same time, I feel Kolkata will lose some colour without Mohun Bagan," Bhutia added.
Bhutia blamed club officials for the ban, saying that "(Mohun Bagan) officials took the decision without thinking of the consequences". "the decision not to play can never be supported. I feel sorry for the fans and the players. Football has to go on.”
“Even if Sachin does not play, cricket goes on. I am sure Mohun Bagan will appeal. But rules have been laid down," said Bhutia who was himself suspended by the club for being irregular in practice sessions and skipping an exhibition match in 2009.
Former Mohun Bagan star Chima Okorie said the ban would set Indian football backwards. "Mohun Bagan have to stay. If not, East Bengal will not have a Derby. Indian Football will be set back, many years. AIFF should think of football and its development in India," he said.
The I-League Core Committee declared all of Bagan’s matches in the "I-League Competition 2012-13 cancelled and considered null and void". [H]