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The NFL?s here again, for better or worse

So, this time also, it will be a 3-way battle between Goa, Mumbai and Bengal for what used to India?s richest prize-money tournament, writes Dhiman Sarkar.

india Updated: Jan 05, 2007 00:32 IST

Laud the vision of those who said that, with time, the National League would be the only competition that mattered in Indian football. The day the 11th edition kicks off in New Delhi, it is time again to raise a toast to such far-sightedness, for the accuracy of their prediction if nothing else.

If a strong league is the cornerstone of a country’s international soccer profile, if it is imperative to kickstart enthusiasm in a sport described by some as the theatre of the masses, the concept has bombed spectacularly. We went into the new year ranked 157th on the FIFA list.

In the meanwhile, at least two international brands known for their association with football, decided they had had enough of the game in the world’s most populous democracy. And tournaments traditionally known as breeding grounds for players and responsible for keeping the game alive and kicking across the country have either been dead and buried or on their last tether.
No one knows whether the Sait Nagjee Memorial, the Stafford Cup, the Mamen Mapillai and other tournaments that dotted south India happen anymore and, if they do, who plays in them. Time was when they attracted top clubs that would more often than not find a player who caught their fancy.
That’s how India found Arumugam Sarvanan, Ilyash Pasha and Rehamatullah Khan. The Bordoloi Trophy has not yet atrophied but it has been some time since Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting played together and against foreign clubs to full houses at Guwahati’s Nehru Stadium.

Even big ones like the Rovers Cup, the Scissors Cup (once India’s highest prize-money tournament) and the DCM have been consigned to history and the IFA Shield is just another tournament. The triple-crown (Durand, Rovers and IFA), which meant the world to our top clubs, just do not matter anymore.

To apportion all blame on this home-and-away competition now boosted by good television would be unfair. But it is difficult to miss the way the emergence of one coincided with the ennui in others. It is also worth wondering (if only at this time of the year) why the National League has only one team from south India and that too by default and only one from the north. Since FC Kochin went bust, Kerala — home to IM Vijayan, the late VP Sathyan, Pappachan and Jo Paul Ancheri — have not had a presence in Indian club football worth a mention.

So, this time also, it will be a three-way battle between Goa, Mumbai and Bengal for what used to India’s richest prize-money tournament — till the Premier Hockey League increased the stakes this year to Rs 40 lakh winners’ purse — one that gets the winner a passport to continental competitions.

Buoyed by the Federation Cup and after a protracted period of uncertainty, Mohun Bagan look the most settled of Kolkata teams. That’s largely because East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting are still looking for the one thing that makes a difference in this long-drawn out meet — foreign firepower.

Given their arsenal and the way they run the team, it is difficult to look beyond Mahindra United again. And given their consistency over the past two seasons, Sporting Clube de Goa can keep hoping that they will be third time lucky. On paper, it looks like a three-way battle for the top spot between Mohun Bagan, Mahindra United and Sporting Clube. But weirder things have happened and could this time too because, as East Bengal coach Carlos Pereira pointed out, the difference between most teams is insignificant.
 
In terms of eyeballs, the beginning was encouraging. With time it became just another tournament and even in Goa and Kolkata, the turnouts are often an embarrassment. It is a problem that preceded the Premier League so India is in good company there. Since Alf Ramsey’s ‘wingless wonders’ ruled the world, the Premiership has perhaps been the most significant thing to happen in English football.

We are still some distance from getting there but what the heck, with its first prize offering way over the Ranji Trophy, this is India’s biggest domestic tournament, along with the PHL. And that alone is a lot of reason to keep playing ball.

An overview of the 10 teams in the COMPETITION

Mahindra United
Strengths: Discount the
defending champions at your own peril. Backed by a cooperative management which ensured continuity and having the NFL’s only AFC Pro Licence holder coach, the red shirts from Mumbai will mean business. Nine from their roster are with the national team where Bob Houghton has been a good influence.
Weaknesses: The season has not begun well with untimely exits from the Durand Cup and the Federation Cup. Partial compensation has been a maiden IFA Shield crown. Without Jose Barreto, Yusif Yakubu sometimes looks lonely up front. The Cooperage too is not the best of home grounds for this star-studded team to play to potential. And despite last season’s double, mental strength is not their biggest asset.
Players to watch out for: Manjit Singh, NP Pradeep, S Venkatesh, NS Manju, Steven Dias

Sporting Clube de Goa
Strengths: A bright spot on the football scene, this new club has a well-drilled team moulded by Nigerian coach Clifford Chukwuma. They are fit, young and blend collective and individual ability like none of their peers. Bello Rasaq’s defensive solidity and Dudu Omagbemi’s goal-scoring skills complement efforts of the young guns like Harmanjot Khabra, Gourmangi Singh, Jose Carvalho, Nicolau Borges and Nicolas Rodrigues.
Weaknesses: Despite recovering phenomenally from a serious road accident in 2005 and winning the Goa League this time, Sporting appear to choke on big occasions. They have been Indian football’s bridesmaids, the last two Federation Cups being cases in point. Moreover, Omagbemi’s partnership with Ernest Jeremiah looks far from settled.
Players to watch out for: Khabra, Omagbemi, Joe Pereira, Rodrigues, Borges

Dempo SC
Strengths: The reigning Durand Cup champions won the double in 2004-05, Climax Lawrence is getting back to form and Majek Bolaji should soon be available to lend defensive concrete. Coach Armando Colaco has been with the team for sometime so they look settled. Brazilian Beto pulls the midfield strings and likes getting up the park to score as well. Striker Ranti Martins too is a proven performer.
Weaknesses: Martins and Clifford Miranda need to curb their impetuosity. Lawrence is just getting into his own and if he and Beto have an off day, Dempo struggle. Lawrence and Sameer Naik are also injury-prone.
Players to watch out for: Martins, Beto, Naik, Valeriano Rebello, Lawrence

Mohun Bagan
Strengths: Thrice champions and boasting the richest history in Indian football. The Federation Cup has ended a long title drought and winning three matches on penalties to get there shows a sea change from the Mohun Bagan that battled to avoid the chop for most of the last two NFLs. With Bhaichung Bhutia, Jose Barreto, Dharamjit Singh, Mehtab Hossian, Sangram Mukherjee, Eduardo Coelho and the now recovering Tomba Singh and Mehrajuddin Wadao, Mohun Bagan have a team which is the competition’s envy.
Weaknesses: A makeshift coach in Robson Mattos whose substitutions and tactics are often mysterious. Questions over whether Bhutia and Barreto are still at their peak and their inability to close out games in regulation time remain.
Players to watch out for: Bhutia, Barreto, Hossian, Coelho,
Lalkamal Bhowmick

East Bengal
Strengths: Thrice champions, twice back-to-back. The only team to do so mean East Bengal’s reputation precedes their coming. History also shows that they are most dangerous when cornered. Without too many things going their way last season, East Bengal finished second in the NFL. They also won the IFA league this season.

Weaknesses: Too many losses have put the players and coach under severe pressure. Their problem with foreigners persists. Recruitment too has been wonky with Vincent Pires, the only specialist right-back, battling fitness problems. They also lack a good striker.
Players to watch out for: Syed Rahim Nabi, Alvito d’Cunha, Naseem Akhtar.

JCT
Strengths: Only JCT have the same coach since the NFL began 11 seasons ago. Sukhwinder Singh has been successful with the national team too so the genial Sikh knows his onions. Edeh Chidi is a useful addition to a team sometimes seeming short on matchwinners. Given north India’s severe winter, JCT perhaps have the most perceptible home advantage in the early part of the league.

Weaknesses: Having won it once, they seem satisfied with a mid-table berth. A shock exit from the Federation Cup is proof of their inconsistency, something which could haunt them in a marathon competition.
Players to watch out for: Renedy Singh, Edeh Chidi, Parveen Kumar, Narinder Singh, Sunil Chhetri.

Churchill Brothers
Strengths: They almost won the first NFL but have not been close to reproducing that form since. Back in the top tier after one season, the family team has a slew of young hard-running players from the North-east and in Odafe Okolie and George Ekeh, two able goal-getters. Moroccan coach Karim Bencherifa seems to have instilled discipline into his young team.

Weaknesses: A team thin on experience that could be a problem especially in a long-drawn out competition. If Okolie and Ekeh are checked, Churchill Brothers do not seem to have anyone capable of filling in.
Players to watch out for: Okolie, Ekeh, Chandam Chitrsen, Bungo Singh.

Air-India
Strengths: No high-fliers but they often punch above their weight especially at the Cooperage. Like JCT, they have a stable set-up and in Bimal Ghosh a coach equipped to produce a dour, defensive game, which can often steal a point or more from illustrious opponents.

Weaknesses: Lack of quality on the roster and lack of coordination between Nigerian defenders Ablodom Martins and Femi Adeola.
Players to watch out for: Zaheer Abbas, Paresh Shivalkar and Benoy Kuruvilla.

HAL
Strengths: They have nothing to lose, being here because TFA are not. Coach Krishnaji Rao has been around for long and they are capable of pulling the ground from under big teams once in a while. On their day, HAL can play with the cohesiveness of a team, which has been together for long.

Weaknesses: Little time to prepare because HAL were told of their inclusion only in November. Little budget to hire quality players.
Players to watch out for: Kuttimani, Xavier Kumar.

Mohammedan Sporting
Strengths: A willing spirit and in Subhas Bhowmick, the only coach with consecutive NFL titles. He saved them from relegation with a 4-0 thrashing of Salgaocar last season soon after taking over.

Weaknesses: Severely thin on resources, distractions of a possible sanction from FIFA over releasing midfielder Douglas da Silva, lack of a quality striker ever since Mike Okoro started playing hookey.
Players to watch out for: Bijen Singh, Jamir Ali Mondal, Habibur Rehman Mondal.

Email Dhiman Sarkar: dhiman@hindustantimes.com