Clash between clubs and AIFF over IMG League has tarnished start of season.
The 2013-14 I-League season kicks off on Saturday, with a cloud of negativity masking a few strands of hope.
The build-up towards any league is generally dotted with transfer news -- some high profile and others routine -- that creates excitement among the fans but the approach to opening day’s action has been anything but exciting.
The two major parties involved -- the clubs and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) -- have repeatedly clashed over the latter’s decision to stage the ambitious IMG-Reliance league next January.
Instead of promoting the country’s national league that is struggling to find a firm footing despite the game’s huge popularity, the AIFF chose to hit the warpath with the clubs asking them to release players for the IMG-R’s proposed event which it believes could be the way forward for the Indian football.
As the saga continues, the fans would look for some quality action on the pitch come Saturday as Churchill Brothers seek to hold on to their crown that they won in a fairly comfortable fashion last season. Churchill, however, won’t find the task easy this time around as City rivals Dempo appear hungrier than ever while Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Mohammedan Sporting and United SC will be aiming to wrest the crown away from Goa.
Churchill, who won the crown for the second time, will be missing one key personnel in their pursuit of extending their reign -- talismanic striker Beto. The Brazilian marksman led the attack with gusto last season but he has moved on to Dempo this time.
Bizarrely, for all their success, Churchill are famed at appointing coaches only on short-term basis and their technical director Subhash Bhowmick who guided the team to glory is missing from the management staff. The champions have roped in Mariano Dias as the chief coach and Sukhwinder Singh as the technical director and the duo has enough tactical acumen to carry the team forward. International Lenny Rodrigues will be shepherding the central midfield while in the absence of Beto, Sporting Lisbon Academy graduate Hugo Machado plays the crucial feeder-cum-striker role.
Three-time champions Dempo appear to have done their pre-season homework brilliantly. Apart from poaching back Beto, the Golden Eagles have quickly replaced their long-serving coach Armando Colaco with the young Arthur Papas and made some interesting signings too -- striker Jeje Lalpekhua and midfielder Jewel Raja.
To showcase their burning desire after finishing a disappointing fifth last term, they’ve also roped in Bangkok FC striker Billy Mehmet and with top players in almost every position, very few would be betting against them regaining the throne. Salgoacar, the 2012-13 champions, have a new coach in their former player Derrick Pereira but with top names like Josimar da Silva Martins, Luciano Sobrosa and Collin Abranches leaving, the Green and Whites face a daunting task.
The same thing can be said about Sporting Clube de Goa, who overcame a torrid start last season to eventually finish sixth. While they’ve held on to the majority of the squad, lack of star power means focus will be on team work. The Kolkatan club that appears to have the best chance of ending the Goan run is East Bengal. Brazilian Marcos Falopa has replaced British tactician Trevor Morgan as the coach and the team has warmed up brilliantly with a good outing in the AFC Cup.
They’ve roped in Japanese playmaker Ryuji Sueoka and last season’s second highest goal scorer James Moga. With prolific Chidi Edeh and talented Lalrindika Ralte in their side, the Red and Gold brigade look quite potent. EB’s arch-rivals Mohun Bagan are embroiled in plenty of problems and it would be a surprise if they can stand toe-to-toe with the other giants.
One team that has been generating a lot of buzz is the newly-formed Bengaluru FC. With several high-profile signings in coach Ashley Westwood, Sunil Chhetri, Robin Singh and former Middlesborough defender John Johnson, the team will be aiming to make a bold first statement. Will they or is it going to be the Goans again, remains to been seen.