Indian Football

Minerva won the I-League this year as much as East Bengal and Mohun Bagan blew it

In a league missing the top names of Indian football, the top two from Kolkata should have done much, much better.

The scenarios heading into a frantic final day in the I-League made for some fascinating reading.

A North Indian club had not won the league title since JCT Phagwara did it in the first ever National Football League season of the 1996.

Mohun Bagan could have tied Dempo for most national league titles, five. They, however, had only one I-League title to their name so far.

East Bengal had not won the national league title since 2004. That was in the NFL era. The number of I-League titles they had? Zero.

Neroca had a chance to become only the second club from the Northeast to win the I-League, emulating Aizawl FC’s giant-killing efforts from the previous season.

Four teams, three games, two points between them, one title. As it turned out, it was a day for Bhangra beats and bragging rights in Panchkula, with Minerva Punjab emerging champions.

The fact that the title race went down to the last day was exciting and productive for the league but it was an indicator of a deeper malaise: more than one team had failed to land a decisive blow on their rivals in an under-strength league.

This season of the I-League was always going to be different from all the previous ones. While the preceding domestic seasons featured the I-League after the completion of the Indian Super League, the two were held simultaneously this year and the poorer cousin was always going to lose out on the cream of the Indian talent.

In Stephen Constantine’s recent Indian squad for the final AFC Asian Cup qualifier against Kyrgyz Republic, only five of the 32-strong squad were from the I-League.

An increase in the number of foreigners was supposed to play into the hands of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, who were desperate after Aizawl had managed a stunning title victory last season. With the exit of fellow powerhouses Bengaluru FC, the league was there for the taking.

If only it were that easy with the two Kolkata clubs (it never is).

Without the best local footballers, it always was going to go down to the foreign players and their quality (or lack of). Those who brought smart would finish higher (Minerva, Neroca) while those who bought haphazardly were also going to struggle (Churchill Brothers).

East Bengal were possibly the favourites going into the season with a strong Indian core in Arnab Mondal, Lalramchullova, Mohammed Rafique, Laldanmawia Ralte, Cavin Lobo and Nikhil Poojari supporting Eduardo Ferreira, Mahmoud Al-Amna, Katsumi Yusa and Charles D’Souza.

Khalid Jamil, Aizawl’s title winning coach was also drafted in and while his ‘score-and-stall’ tactics might have worked with the underdogs, his team more often than not, failed to grab the game by the scruff of the neck – something they should have done more often than not given the quality present in the outfit.

With East Bengal, opposition teams would sit back and soak up the pressure, hitting them on the counter, negating Jamil’s dreary approaches to games, second halves in particular. East Bengal threw away 12 points from winning positions, easily a league high and dropped points against Aizawl, Neroca, Churchill Brothers and Gokulam in the last 15 minutes of games.

Willis Plaza, in particular, under-performed as East Bengal failed to show up in the two Kolkata derbies, having been overwhelming favourites for both. Plaza was released and his replacement Dudu scored eight in as many matches, but the damage had been done for the Red-and-Golds.

The ex-Mumbai FC coach brought his underdog approach to a big team, a wrong plan given the history of the combustible-ness within the club. Instead of dominating teams, too much respect was afforded to smaller teams and they took full advantage of Jamil’s insecurities, pouncing on any defensive lapses. A total of eight wins out of 18 and only three in their last 10 was a poor return.

Minerva and Neroca played it smart with their recruitment strategy and execution on the pitch. If one stat sums up Minerva’s campaign, it is this: between the four of them, Kassim Aidara, William Opoku, Chencho Gyeltshen and Guy Eric Dano played all 18 matches for the Champions.

Reliable and cohesive.

Coach Wanghem Khogen Singh dispensed with the passing niceties. Minerva averaged the least number of passes in the league but knew exactly how to play in a league where the quality of football was low. Hoick it long and go route one.

Off-pitch troubles threatened to derail their title challenge but with Chencho as their preferred outlet, Minerva would swarm opponents with their pace and relentless attacks. With seven goals and six assists, the Bhutanese was their main player.

For I-League’s Manipuri debutants Neroca, Aryn Williams, Varney Kallon, Fabien Vorbe and Felix Chidi were solid in their contributions and Gift Raikhan’s side kept nine clean sheets in all. They scored the lowest number of the goals in the top five (20) but also conceded a league lowest 13 and deserved their second place finish. Raikhan’s tactical inflexibility may have cost them the two games against Minerva but he and Neroca nonetheless deserve credit for a second placed finish in their debut top-flight season.

The less said about Bagan, the better. Sony Norde and Sanjoy Sen, two of the most pivotal figures of the club left midway but it was a disaster throughout as points were dropped to Shillong Lajong, Neroca, Indian Arrows, Chennai City, Minerva and Gokulam at home.

True, Sen did lose his Indian core to the ISL but even with the replacements that he had, the 2014-15 title winning coach looked out of his depth. Two Kolkata derby wins and a late flurry under Sen’s successor, Shankarlal Chakraborty, couldn’t hide the cracks as the club had blown their chances early in the season.

Like Bagan, Lajong and Aizawl struggled, having lost the majority of their players from last season while Gokulam, Chennai City and Churchill were embroiled in the relegation battle. The Indian Arrows had a few positive results but instead of lauding them for their efforts in this league, the real question is whether any of the opponents that had defeated the Under-17 World Cup team in their last two years together, have performed any worse in the I-League? One suspects not.

The entertainment quotient of the I-League was high this time around, but the very real question of the future of the league remains, especially after the standard of football witnessed. For a product abandoned by all stakeholders barring the clubs and spectators, it has done well for itself once again.

But the reality is that the clock is ticking down slowly and the knives are being sharpened, as another season finishes.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Movies can make you leap beyond what is possible

Movies have the power to inspire us like nothing else.

Why do we love watching movies? The question might be elementary, but one that generates a range of responses. If you had to visualise the world of movies on a spectrum, it would reflect vivid shades of human emotions like inspiration, thrill, fantasy, adventure, love, motivation and empathy - generating a universal appeal bigger than of any other art form.

“I distinctly remember when I first watched Mission Impossible I. The scene where Tom Cruise suspends himself from a ventilator to steal a hard drive is probably the first time I saw special effects, stunts and suspense combined so brilliantly.”  

— Shristi, 30

Beyond the vibe of a movie theatre and the smell of fresh popcorn, there is a deeply personal relationship one creates with films. And with increased access to movies on television channels like &flix, Zee Entertainment’s brand-new English movie channel, we can experience the magic of movies easily, in the comforts of our home.

The channel’s tagline ‘Leap Forth’ is a nod to the exciting and inspiring role that English cinema plays in our lives. Comparable to the pizazz of the movie premieres, the channel launched its logo and tagline through a big reveal on a billboard with Spider-Man in Mumbai, activated by 10,000 tweets from English movies buffs. Their impressive line-up of movies was also shown as part of the launch, enticing fans with new releases such as Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, The Dark Tower, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Life.

“Edgar Wright is my favourite writer and director. I got interested in film-making because of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the dead. I love his unique style of storytelling, especially in his latest movie Baby Driver.”

— Siddhant, 26

Indeed, movies can inspire us to ‘leap forth’ in our lives. They give us an out-of-this-world experience by showing us fantasy worlds full of magic and wonder, while being relatable through stories of love, kindness and courage. These movies help us escape the sameness of our everyday lives; expanding our imagination and inspiring us in different ways. The movie world is a window to a universe that is full of people’s imaginations and dreams. It’s vast, vivid and populated with space creatures, superheroes, dragons, mutants and artificial intelligence – making us root for the impossible. Speaking of which, the American science fiction blockbuster, Ghost in the Shell will be premiering on the 24th of June at 1:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M, only on &flix.

“I relate a lot to Peter Parker. I identified with his shy, dorky nature as well as his loyalty towards his friends. With great power, comes great responsibility is a killer line, one that I would remember for life. Of all the superheroes, I will always root for Spiderman”

— Apoorv, 21

There are a whole lot of movies between the ones that leave a lasting impression and ones that take us through an exhilarating two-hour-long ride. This wide range of movies is available on &flix. The channel’s extensive movie library includes over 450 great titles bringing one hit movie premiere every week. To get a taste of the exciting movies available on &flix, watch the video below:

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of &flix and not by the Scroll editorial team.