From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.39 :: Sep. 26, 2009
The jubilant Churchill Brothers team after defeating Mohun Bagan in the final.
Churchill Brothers, the I-League champion, carried its good form into the new season with an overwhelming show of fitness, skill and tactical finesse. In the first National event of the season, the IFA Shield, the Goan giant showed how formidable a team it is by lifting its maiden crown in the 114th edition of the championship in Kolkata.
Mohun Bagan, the I-League runner-up, saw its challenge falling short once again. And the Goa versus Bengal duel ended with the former having a clear edge as Churchill Brothers hammered out a 2-0 verdict in the final against a dithering Mohun Bagan.
The occasion proved to be apt for the tournament, which is one of the oldest in the world, as it was emerging from a bend in its long, meandering history. The IFA Shield, much like the Durand Cup, has been struggling to find a consistent slot in the National calendar with the AIFF (All India Football Federation) tossing it around when planning the order of events. The tournament was given a go-by last season as the AIFF had problems in accommodating it in the National calendar.
But this time, with the AIFF deciding to kick-off the season with the IFA Shield, the tournament attracted eight I-League teams which made the event very competitive. There was also a foreign team — Senegal’s AS Douanes — two I-League second division sides and a qualifier from the feeder event, the Prodyut Dutta Memorial tournament.
However, with less time allotted for the tournament, it failed to take full flight and do justice to the participants. Instead of the regular quarterfinal league, the organisers were forced to adopt a three-team group league format before the semifinals in order to complete the tournament in 10 days.
The fallout of the abridged format was that three teams — Mahindra United, the defending champion, Mohammedan Sporting and Tata Football Academy (TFA) — crashed out of the tournament despite having an unbeaten record in the group league stage. With teams playing just three matches in each group, statistical calculations proved more important than performances.
Okolie Odafa... came good in the final.
Mahindra United, much to its dismay, found that playing first and not scoring enough was a problem indeed. Clubbed with the 21-time champion, Mohun Bagan, in Group C, the Mumbai giant managed to post a 2-0 win against the relatively weaker side, George Telegraph SC, in the opening match. In the second match, Mahindra spurned a series of winning chances against Mohun Bagan before settling for a 1-1 draw. Mohun Bagan then made the most of this reprieve by pulling off a 4-0 victory against George Telegraph which ensured the Kolkata outfit a passage to the semifinals on better goal difference.
Mahindra’s coach, David Booth of England, was clearly distraught by the chances that his team missed, while the Mohun Bagan coach, Karim Bencherifa of Morocco, thanked his luck for being able to stay afloat. Luck proved crucial in Bagan reaching the final.
The three-time National Football League — which was later renamed I-League — champion, East Bengal, coming off a prolonged pre-season build-up, that included a series of practice matches in Myanmar, crashed out of the tournament losing 1-3 to TFA in its first Group A match. The premier academy boys scored three second-half goals to give the local giant its “worst defeat in recent years,” as admitted by the East Bengal coach Subhas Bhowmick.
Chirag United SC, the other I-League team in the group, handed out an even bigger defeat to East Bengal, a 4-2 drubbing. United SC, held 1-1 by TFA, finally made it to the semifinals having scored more goals as the two teams were tied on points and goal-difference.
In Group B, Churchill Brothers’ 2-0 victory against Shillong Lajong FC, which has been promoted to the I-League, enabled it to reach the last-four stage. The goal-scoring equation came into play even in this group as Mohammedan Sporting held Churchill Brothers 1-1 and then picked up full points, beating Lajong 1-0.
Air India, from Group D, was the only team to move into the semifinals on points. The Senegalese side, Douanes, turned out to be a big disappointment without a victory in the group. It drew goalless against Air India and lost 0-2 to the new I-League side Pune FC. Air India, which beat Pune FC 2-1, easily made it to the last-four stage.
It was a close competition in the semifinals as the matches were decided via the tiebreaker. The new synthetic turf at the Salt Lake Stadium definitely helped better the level of the contests as Churchill Brothers, missing its suspended striker Okolie Odafa, came from behind to hold Air India 1-1 in 120 minutes of action (including extra-time). In the tie-breaker, Air India, which could score only twice, handed the match to Churchill Brothers which converted four of its five attempts.
In the other semifinal, Mohun Bagan, playing with 10 men after its new Nigerian striker Chidi Edeh was sent off for head-butting the rival defender Eduardo Coleho in the 10th minute, survived for 110 minutes against United SC. Sangram Mukherjee, who was brought in, in the last minute of extra-time, made a crucial save to give Bagan a 5-4 verdict in the tiebreaker.
The final was a different story as Churchill Brothers, with Odafa returning to the team, blanked Mohun Bagan. The Kolkata team’s attack failed miserably in the absence of Chidi Edeh who was suspended.
Odafa came good on the big occasion, setting up the first goal and scoring the other to ensure Churchill Brothers’ victory.
Breaking new ground
The Salt Lake Stadium, which is one of the largest in the world with a capacity of over 100,000, turned a new chapter in its illustrious history by becoming the first I-League football venue to have an artificial turf.
The new surface, called Field Turf, is impervious to the effects of prolonged monsoon that the region experiences. Looking to better the playing conditions, the former sports minister of the state, Mr. Subhas Chakraborty, decided to go in for the new turf. The venture, incidentally, was the last project of Subhas’ life as he passed away on August 3.
Field Turf, on which the IFA Shield was played, proved to be a worthy surface during the rains. Kolkata had witnessed the highest rainfall this season. And on the inaugural day of the tournament, while the areas adjoining the stadium were water-logged, the turf looked pristine. Churchill Brothers defeated Air India in the inaugural match that was fast-paced. With the discomfort of playing on a slushy ground a thing of the past, the four teams that contested the semifinals on Field Turf were quite satisfied with the surface.
However, there were a few players and officials who were not certain about how it would be playing on the new turf in the summer.
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