Friday, June 17, 2011

2010/11 I-League in review

By Arunava Chaudhuri - AFF Indian correspondent

Salgaocar celebrate their first I-League championship
The fourth edition of the I-League, India's professional football league, came to an end on June 1 after one of the most interesting seasons in Indian football ever.

In the end Salgaocar Sports Club from Goa became the surprise champions while former National Football League winners JCT from Phagwara and Mumbai's ONGC went down to the second Division.

The I-League lasted for nearly six months, but the first couple of months were played without the 30 India players amongst coach Bob Houghton's probables for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. This had an effect on some teams who had numerous players at the camp.

Kolkata's East Bengal Club were the league's early pace setters as they won their first six matches and looked to be the team to beat as they came into the I-League having won the Calcutta Premier Division and Federation Cup titles.

But a mid-season slump by the red-and-gold initially with numerous draws and then also defeats allowed Salgaocar SC to close in and then grab the top spot. Suddenly the Goans, who no one really considered as title contenders, were in the lead and until a few weeks before the end of the league it looked as if they could seal the title before the last match day.

But losses to Air India, Dempo SC and Mumbai FC made the title race interesting again. But they won their key match 3-2 against rival title contenders East Bengal Club after being 0-2 down, with that match instilling enough confidence in the team to ensure that they did not allow the title to get out of their hands.

Salgaocar won their final game of the 2010/11 season against JCT in Ludhiana on May 30 to ensure that none of the other contenders could catch them. It is the first I-League title for Salgaocar, but their second overall national league title as they had been champions of the old National Football League in the 1998/99 season under coach Shabbir Ali with players like Juje Siddi Roberto Fernandes, Derrick Pereira, Shanmugam Venkatesh, Jules Alberto, Alvito D'Cunha and the legendary Bruno Coutinho.

Now a new generation in green-and-white has created history led by their Moroccan coach Karim Bencharifa, his coaching staff, the club management and a young team led by the seasoned Yakubu Yusif from Ghana and Japanese recruit Ryuji Sueoka from the front.

Salgaocar's strength has been the team, with Karim able get the best out of his boys with players like Gilbert Oliveira, Cajetan Fernandes and other youngsters making their breakthrough as the team also had an able goalkeeper in Karanjit Singh at the back.

"This triumph means a lot to me, my players, staff and management. I would also like to dedicate this triumph to the Salgaocar fans. They were really behind us, especially at home and that helped us a lot," said an overjoyed Karim.

For Karim the title came in year five of his coaching stint in India. After two years with Churchill Brothers SC (2006-08), close to two years at Mohun Bagan (2008-10) and over a year at Salgaocar SC (2010 - ...), he has finally won the title on the third attempt.
At all three clubs he has built teams from scratch and he did it around strong foreigners, seasoned locals and giving young Indians a chance to launch their career.

While the young Salgaocar team was the positive surprise of the season there was also a negative highlight too, Dempo SC's 14-0 victory against Air India on the last match day. It is the biggest victory in the history of the league and as one would expect rumours of match fixing and other wrong doings did the rounds, but nothing was proven and the All India Football Federation did not order a probe.

What remains from the 2010/11 season is that it was a transition year towards the full professionalisation of the I-League. It won't happen next season, but we are getting closer to see a fully professional league in India in the years to come.

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