If the fecundity of foreign strikers in the recent Federation and Durand Cups is anything to go by -- and for that matter their track record in the last and previous editions of the National Football League too -- fortunes in the ONGC I-League, the rebranded version of the NFL, will again be determined by 'outside' elements.
The I-League kicks-off on November 24 at the Nehru stadium in Goa, with champions Dempo Sports Club taking on promoted Salgoacar in a local derby.
Incidentally, John Abraham of 'DDDG' fame will be on hand to boot off the proceedings with the top brass of the Aall India Football Federation and sponsors also in attendance.
The AIFF's belated and regressive move to allow clubs to register four foreigners (albeit still play only three in a match) will again increase the import of the 'foreign legion' in Indian football, especially in the striking department, where their influence is most predominant.
Last season, Ranty Martins powered Dempo to the title with 16 goals, while top scorer Odafe Onyeka Okolie took youthful Churchill Brothers to a creditable fourth place with 18 strikes.
In earlier editions, the likes of Igor Shivkirin, Jose Ramirez Barreto, Cristiano Jr, Yusif Yakubu contributed substantially to the triumphs of their respective teams.
This season, the script is panning out no different. East Bengal and Churchill Brothers rode on the prowess of their charismatic frontliners, Edmilson Marques Pardal (six goals in four games) and Okolie (11 in four outings) respectively to steal top honours in the Federation and Durand Cups.
There is no reason to assume they will leave their shooting boots at home during the I-League.
Other top teams also flaunt superior videshi striking power -- the Martins-Chidi Edeh-Beto (Dempo), Yakubu Yusif (Mahindra United), Barreto (Mohun Bagan) and Eduardo da Silva Escobar (JCT), who will have to rise to the occasion).
Till the time of filing, several clubs are yet to utilize their old quota of three foreigners -- since there are not worthy candidates readily available. They will have to scout for some more now that the AIFF has thrown them an additional lifeline.
Of course, local firepower too will have a role to play and India skipper Bichung Bhutia (Mohun Bagan), Sunil Chhetri (JCT), Samson Singh (Air-India) and Ashim Biswas (East Bengal) will also have to prove a point.
On paper, Dempo look the most balanced team with quality resources in all departments -- attack, midfield and defence, save goalkeeping. They appear the best bet to retain the title they won after leaders Mahindra United faltered in the home stretch (against relegated HAL, 14th round) and faded out.
The injury to left-midfielder Clifford Miranda (out for four months with a shin bone fracture) will denude however Armando Colaco's iron ore miners of their steely edge.
Apart from the foreign trio, local stalwarts like holding medio Climax Lawrence and classy stopper back Mahesh Gawli also have a big role to play. Although Dempo have won the Goa league, their defeats in the Federation, Durand and Super Cups (an all-Goa affair) have dented their invincibility and offers rivals a sliver of hope.
Mahindra United reached two finals (Federation and Durand) this season and bowed out of the AFC Cup quarters after a stiff fight. But they have problems both in defence, which was cleaned out in the inter-state transfers, and attack.
The present line-up lacks experience and an injury to international N P Pradeep, who will miss a few initial games, will complicate matters. A foreign replacement is being urgently sought. Finishing too is an area of concern and it is imperative that a class act joins Yakubu upfront. Needless to add, the redoubtable intermediate line -- Steven Dias, Douhou Pierre, Manjit, Ajayan and PIO Izumi Arata -- will hopefully put the Mumbai team's campaign on overdrive.
Of Kolkata's 'Big Two', newly-crowned Kolkata league champions Mohun Bagan seem to have settled in under new coach Carlos Roberto Pereira. Should the Barreto-Bhutia combo stay fit the whole league through, the Mariners can go the distance. More so if a couple of quality foreigners are inducted.
On the other hand, East Bengal's lustre has dimmed after the Federation Cup victory and the fade out in the local league will see their self-confidence at a low. How two-time NFL winner Subrata Bhattacharya re-motivates his squad and what sort of assistance Edmilson gets upfront will tell on the red & gold brigade's fortunes. South African 2002 World Cup midfielder McDonald Mukansi will have to redeem himself after his lackluster debut in the Kolkata league, if he is signed up at all.
JCT are always formidable at home and their conservative approach in away matches, backed by a robust defence marshaled by Nigerian stopper back Julius Akpele, makes them a tough nut to crack anyway. A good mix of local and outstation talents, veteran coach Sukhwinder Singh's hopes however will depend on whether his two Brazilian recruits, midfielder Marcos Pereira and striker Edu, live up to their part of the bargain.
Sporting Club de Goa, who almost won the title in 2004-05, appear rudderless after the departure of iconic marksman Dudu Omagbemi to Polish pastures. The 'Flaming Orange' are unable to source credible foreign replacements. Although their midfield trio of Bibiano and Micky Fernandes and Joseph Pereira will keep the ball rolling, the lack of firepower may undermine their efforts.
There are great expectations of Churchill Brothers, especially after their recent Durand win in Delhi and their defeat of Dempo in the Super Cup final at home. With a year's experience under their belt, Karim Bencherifa's young guns, like Arsene Wenger's rejuvenated Arsenal, will be better equipped to gun for greater glory.
And if Okolie can continue to fire on all cylinders with able Nigerian counterpart Mboyo Iyomi and Brazilian medio Fabio Vidal can control the middle, the Alemao family outfit can whip up a Varca storm. However, lack of adequate bench strength can prove their undoing when injuries set it.
For the likes of middling Air-India, and promoted Salgaocar and Viva Kerala, survival instincts will predominate. The Mumbai airmen, almost impregnable on their small Cooperage home turf, have however signaled a change of intentions or probably strategy -- attack is now the best form of defence. They will now field two foreign strikers (new Cameroonian recruit Njoh Jean will partner Nigerian Bashiru Abbas) and one foreign defender (Suley Musah) as compared to the reverse in the previous seasons.
As for the Goan champs of 1998-99, now a pale shadow of their former formidable selves, a young, creative midfield and a fairly sound defence may not camouflage the overall frailties of Savio Medeira's side with an inexperienced goalkeeping department and an unknown bunch of strikers compounding his worries.
Viva Kerala's debut season in the big league will be a sterling test of character for a squad brimming with young home grown talents. Coach A M Sreedharan has had gilt-edged experience with Kerala Police and F C Kochin but his wards don't have much, except for old warhorse Jo Paul Ancheri who is however recovering from injury. The foreign trio of Badmas Babatunde (making his debut in the big league) and Awudu Adama (both strikers) and Tutu George (defender) will be the key to bringing southern comfort to the fans in 'God's own country'.
The I-League, launched with 'professional' intent to both broadbase Indian football and help it catch up with the rest of Asia, will also enjoin clubs and host associations to tone up their act with respect to administration, infrastructure, finances, youth development etc. Two teams will be relegated from the 'top ten' and four promoted to make it 12 next year.
Earlier editions of the NFL saw a lot of flip flops on this score as well as other controversies and crises. The AIFF's stewardship and transparency too must improve dramatically if 'the beautiful game' has to shed its ugly façade and Indian football has to put its best foot forward. The way things run in Indian football we can perhaps expect two steps forward one step backward progress before things fall into shape. A better and faster denouement will of course be most welcome.