From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.02 :: Jan. 10, 2009
The triumphant Mohun Bagan team.
Mohun Bagan brought home another major title much to the delight of its fans who had virtually counted the team out at the start of the season. The Federation Cup — India’s second most important football title after the I-League — came back to adorn the cabinet of the oldest club of Asia, which emerged triumphant for the 13th time in the 31-year-old history of the tournament. The triumph was even sweeter for the Kolkata giant as it lifted the crown defeat ing Dempo SC of Goa, which is arguably the most proficient and the best managed club of the country.
To make the title win a reality Mohun Bagan had to borrow from Goa the architect who would shape its dreams. Desperately looking to put behind a bad season, Bagan hired coach Karim Bencherifa from Churchill Brothers to make a positive start. The 41-year-old Moroccan coach, who possesses a university diploma in sports science and a wide coaching experience, dovetailed a fair mix of strategy and sentiment to stir the talented but diffident Bagan players out of their stupor.
Mohun Bagan gave its first hint of the transformation initiated by Bencherifa, winning the tough and protracted domestic league title, the 110-year-old Calcutta Football League. The Federation Cup title also ensured the team a berth in the Continental Champion Clubs’ contest, the AFC Cup.
The tournament moved to Bengal after the original host Delhi expressed its inability to organise it. The Indian Football Association, the local organiser, decided to hold the 24-match preliminary group league stage at the Vidyasagar Stadium, Barasat, situated some 40 km from Kolkata and fast developing as a new football centre. The giant Salt Lake Stadium at the State capital hosted the semifinals and the final.
The tournament had 16 teams divided into four groups. Four qualifiers — New Delhi Heroes, Oil India Limited (OIL), Hindustan Aeronautics SC and State Bank of Travancore — figured alongside the 12 I-League teams, Dempo Sports Club, Sporting Clube de Goa, Churchill Brothers, Vasco Sports Club, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Chirag United SC, Mohammedan Sporting, Air-India, Mumbai Football Club, Mahindra United and JCT Phagwara, in the decisive phase.
With the AIFF surprisingly deciding to introduce the league system, the tournament, previously in a knockout format, lost much of its character. Slotted in the break between the two phases of the I-League, the Federation Cup provided little relief to the teams, which had just finished playing 11 rounds of the I-League. As a result, the group league format created some unsavoury situations.
It never does any good to a tournament’s image if teams play under protest. A similar situation was witnessed in the final round matches of group-C and group-D leagues, involving the two top local teams, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. With one team from each group qualifying for the semifinals, the race for the group topper got intense.
Dempo’s Roberto Mendes Silva (left) tackles Mohun Bagan’s Marcos Pereira during the final.
Sporting Clube de Goa, the current leader in I-League, was never near its peak form and made an ignominious exit, losing all its three matches. The Goa side was in such a bad shape that it even went down to debutant New Delhi Heroes.
This left East Bengal and JCT in the race for the top spot in group-C, which was arguably the toughest pool in the league stage. The contest reached the final round where both the teams had a chance to top the group. In such circumstances both the matches are held simultaneously. This is a practice followed the world over. But the organiser strangely went for a successive kick-off with the home team playing the last match. JCT coach Sukhvinder Singh lodged a protest but to little avail. Singh’s remonstration was conveniently overlooked as East Bengal qualified for the last four with an all-win record.
It was a similar situation in group-D where Vasco SC and Mohun Bagan were hoping to top the table. Vasco coach Elvis Goes was also bitter about the arrangement as his team had to play the first match in the final round while Mohun Bagan had the advantage of being asked to play later. In the final count Vasco, which beat OIL 1-0, and Mohun Bagan, which got past Air-India 2-1, were both tied on points (six each) and goal difference (+1 each). The home team sailed through, having scored more goals.
Dempo and Churchill Brothers made it comfortably to the semifinals from group-A and group-B respectively.
The AIFF’s perfunctory attitude towards the tournament was evident once again when OIL was caught fielding a player who had turned out for another club in the same tournament. Bagan lodged a protest saying Stephen Njoh, who figured in the OIL team list distributed before its opening match, had earlier played for Tripura’s Agiye Chalo club in the North East Zone qualifiers. After the Tripura club had crashed out in the first round of the qualifiers, the Cameroon player allegedly switched over to OIL, and even played for the team in the second stage of the qualifiers in Imphal. A team is supposed to be scratched from the tournament if proved guilty of such a crime. But all the protests went unheard yet again.
Dempo, the defending I-League champion, stamped its authority in the semifinal with a facile 2-0 win over Churchill Brothers. Dempo striker Ranty Martins and Churchill midfielder Ogba Kalu lost consciousness following a collision as they went for an aerial ball during the match. The two recovered from the blackout later after getting treated at a nearby hospital. With the on-field death of Dempo’s Brazilian striker Christiano Junior, in the 2004 final in Bangalore, still fresh in the memory of the people, this incident seemed to create a sense of deja vu to those present at the venue.
In the other match, Mohun Bagan had to toil really hard before scraping past holder East Bengal 6-4 via the penalties. East Bengal missed a lot of opportunities and the score read 1-1 at the end of 120 minutes of play before Bagan won the shoot-out. With East Bengal not faring well even in the I-League, coach Stanley Rozario lost his job after the defeat.
Mohun Bagan gave Armando Colaco’s crack side a run for its money in the title match. Despite missing captain Baichung Bhutia owing to injury, Mohun Bagan used its two Brazilian recruits — Jose Barreto and Marcose Pareira — to take the wind out of Dempo’s sail. Barreto scored in the 68th minute to help Mohun Bagan regain the title.
Final: Mohun Bagan 1 (Jose Ramirez Barreto 68) bt Dempo Sports Club 0.
Semifinals: Dempo Sports Club 2 (Ranty Martins Soleye 13-pen, Clifford Miranda 58) bt Churchill Brothers 0; Mohun Bagan AC 6 (1) (Jose Ramirez Barreto 65) bt East Bengal 4 (1) (Sanju Pradhan 61) on penalties.
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