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Suspense over Goa’s I-League hopes

As India’s most prestigious football tournament?the 14-team I-League?nears its end this season, the thought on every Goan soccer aficionado’s mind now is: Will Churchill Brothers bring home the title to Goa?

Streets’ attempt to elicit opinions from a cross-section of Goan soccer fans threw up mixed reactions.

Some weren’t too sure that Churchill Brothers, the current leaders in the league and the only Goan club in the competition with a chance to win the title, will hold their nerve till the end of the tournament and maintain their position at the top.

But many others, mostly diehard fans of the club run by Goa’s former CM and maverick politician, Churchill Alemao, expressed confidence that their favourite side will be champions again.

Last weekend, the team did not belie thehopes of these fans when they did a favour to their title aspirations by earning the full three points with a 2-1 win over the formidable Pune Football Club at the Tilak stadium in the port town of Vasco. The result consolidated their position at the top of the I-League standings table pushing them five points clear of the second-placed giants from Kolkata, East Bengal.

Churchill still have the last four of their 26 matches to play and although the title is clearly in their sights, it’s not over and sealed yet. What’s giving the Goan fans the jitters is their reputation of being chokers at the finishing tape. They’ve blotched up at the home stretch in at least two past editions of this league since it began in the mid-1990s.

But it won’t be the case this time around, says the team’s technical director Subash Bhowmick.

Although currently in Singapore with the team for Churchill Brothers’ Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Cup campaign, Bhowmick said their hearts and minds are on the I-league title.

“I-league takes precedence over everything else for us,” Bhowmick said, adding that the team management would refrain from fielding some of their best players for the AFC Cup match against Singapore’s Warriors FC.

“We may give our top players a rest,” Bhowmick said, adding that their main target is to win the I-League.

Bhowmick said, he’s hoping to rest Sunil Chetri, the Indian captain so that he is fit and raring to go for the next I-League match against Dempo Sports Club. He also said that their Afghan import, Belal Arezou, will also be given a rest. Churchill’s Brazilian defender Roberto Mendes Silva, who is on road to recovery from a nagging injury, is also unlikely to be fielded at Singapore.

Both, Churchill Brothers and Kolkata’s East Bengal still have four matches to play and a maximum of 12 points to earn or squander.  In that sense, the title chase is still wide open between these two, although the advantage lies with the Goan side which has a five-point lead over their Kolkata rivals.

Third-placed Pune FC, who are separated from Churchill by 10 points and from second-placed East Bengal by five points, too are in with a chance to claim the title. The Pune side coached by former Goan defender Derrick Pereira has five matches in hand from which they can hope to win a maximum of 15 points.

Meanwhile, with Churchill Brothers remaining the only hope from among the four Goan sides in the I-League, Goa’s football aficionados are beginning to wonder why is it that this soccer powerhouse of India has fared so poorly in the competition this year.

Until a fortnight ago, Dempo Sports Club too seemed to be in the title hunt but a shocking five defeats in a row have shut the defending champions completely out of the race.

Indeed, the last three weeks haven’t been all that great for Goa’s soccer fans.

The Churchill Brothers silver lining apart, Dempo and the two other Goan Clubs in the competition – Clube Sporting de Goa and Salgaocar Sports Club – have only flattered to deceive their die-hard fans.

There’s no chance these three Goan sides can take a shot at the title from here. Worse, it is unlikely any of them would even finish within the top five.But, the only consolation is that none of the Goan clubs face the threat of finishing in the cellar to be relegated from the competition next season.

Sports journalist Marcus Mergulhao, who’s been reporting football for well over a decade, says he’s not surprised with the poor show by the Goan sides in the I-league.

“It’s not really a surprise that only Churchill Brothers are in the hunt for the title,” Marcus said, adding that the Goan sides have for long ignored youth development and the responsibility of nursing fresh talent.

“For far too long the Goan teams have been riding piggy-back on good foreign players and ignoring youth development,” he said.

“In the current season, Churchill have been well served, as always, by a quartet of good foreign players,” Mergulhao said, adding that Dempo never looked the same since losing Ranty Martins (again a foreign player) to Kolkata side Prayag United.

As for Salgaocar Sports Club, Marcus said they’ve been victims of their coach’s sudden decision to leave and join Kolkata side Mohun Bagan mid-season when the I-League was just five matches old.

Winning and losing is all part of the game, as they say, but has the I-League 2012-13 experience thrown up enough lessons for the Goan team managements to learn?

Perhaps yes, says Marcus.He believes the managers and player scouts of the Goan teams will go back to their drawing rooms and come up with team formulas for a better Goan showing next season.

Hopefully, the formulas the teams work out will have a place for developing younger Goan lads thrown up by school and college football into stars worthy of donning colours for these top four Goan football clubs.