As the 11th edition of the National Football League entered the home stretch, it was quite apparent that, barring a disaster, the title was destined to go Dempo Sports Club's way. Indeed, it did, and deservingly too. For the Goan side did enough and more to lay claim to the tag of champions for the second time, with a round to spare.
Displaying tremendous fighting qualities, Armando Colaco's lads rallied strongly after a surprise defeat to Mohammedan Sporting in Kolkata (11th round) and against JCT FC at home (13th round).
Their only blip after that was an away draw against Air-India in the 17th round, but by then they had done enough by way of victories over valiant Churchill Brothers and East Bengal to ensure that they were on course to claim the prestigious pennant.
Super striker Ranty Martins (16 goals), charismatic skipper Beto (7 goals), outstanding midfielder Clifford Miranda and solid John Dias and Bolaji Majek in defence among others, all contributed to Dempo's victory.
Besides, they won the most number of matches (11), scored the most number of goals (37) and had the best goal difference (+16).
It was Mahindra United's shock defeat by Hindustan Aeronautics at Bangalore in the 14th round that allowed the Goan club to sneak back into the lead. And they did not look back thereafter.
On the other hand, the defending champions, coached by Derrick Pereira, folded up tamely after doing the running in the earlier rounds and ultimately finished third.
The incompetence of their forwards -- spearhead Andrews Mensah Pomeyie (11 goals) missed much more than he netted -- complacency, inconsistency, lack of motivation and lack of performance from key players in the star-studded line-up -- took their toll.
The ageing Yakubu Yusif too failed to resurrect the fading challenge of the 'red devils' no matter how hard he tried. Crucial mistakes in defence also cost Mahindra dear -- the late goals that they conceded against HAL in Bangalore and Mohun Bagan in Kolkata (1-1 draw) also cost them valuable points.
The surprise packet was JCT FC, who zoomed from the bottom rungs to second spot, their best finish after they won the championship in its inaugural year.
Livewire strikers Sunil Chhetri and Chidi Edeh (12 goals each) heralded the Phagwara club's renaissance.
But Sukhwinder Singh's squad woke up too late, in the second leg only. They managed to win only two out of nine matches in the first leg, which in the final analysis, cost them dear.
Sporting Clube de Goa's campaign flagged from the very beginning. Feared marksman Dudu Omagbemi (13 goals), ploughed a lone furrow for the Goans, hindered by the lack of support from his other two below par foreign imports.
Mohun Bagan too did not set sail. The glamour Kolkata club, who went through three coach changes during the NFL, hovered precariously in the relegation zone for quite a while.
The failure of the famed 'Big Bs' -- Baichung Bhutia and Jose Ramirez Barreto -- to fire, undermined their campaign. The high profile duo could only manage nine goals between themselves and the maroon & green outfit finished eighth with a disgraceful -6 goal difference.
Had East Bengal recruited the prolific Edmilson Marques Pardal (13 goals) from the start, they could have perhaps had things better! However, the other two foreign recruits of Carlos Roberto Pereira de Silva's side were not in the same club class, a malaise that affected other clubs as well. Besides, their defence was porous, conceding more goals (29) than the others, except for the two relegated clubs.
Apart from Dempo, the side to impressive were
youthful Churchill Brothers, guided by the astute tactician Karim Bencharifa of Morocco and propelled by the shooting prowess of the NFL's top scorer, Odafa Onyeka Okolie (18 goals). A star turn in fortunes for the Nigerian who laboured in relative obscurity as a
defender a few years earlier in Kolkata. Had the Goans a little more self-belief and luck, they could have finished higher.
HAL and Mohammedan Sporting, who were late in recruiting their foreigners, could then only manage to procure some indifferent ones and both paid the price by being relegated. They will be replaced by former champions Salgaocar and Viva Kerala, who qualified
from the second division.
Plucky Air-India, who rode on vital points earned from their initial home matches - they were never beaten at the Cooperage in this tournament by any outside team - managed to stay airborne again.
That foreign strikers rule the roost was underscored yet again with the hitmen from abroad occupying the top goal scoring slots. However, home grown sharpshooters like the livewire Chhetri, who is being dubbed as the next Bhutia, diminutive Samson Singh of Air-India (8 goals) and Dempo's Anthony Pereira (6 goals) too stole the limelight.
Even as the old order - Bhutia, Barreto, Dipak Mondal, Rennedy Singh etc., -- faded out, the young guns like Chhetri, Samson, Pereira, Lalkamal Bhowmick (Mohun Bagan), Chitrasen Chandan Singh, Robert Lalthalma (Churchill Brothers), N P Pradeep (Mahindra United) etc., -- seized centre stage.
Clearly, the future belongs to them.
The eleventh edition of the NFL confirmed the jinx that a foreign coach cannot win the tournament despite six being in the fray this time -- two (Chima Okerie and Bernard Opernozie) came into the picture belatedly for Mohun Bagan,as successive replacements for the Brazilian, Robson Mattos.
About a dozen foreign coaches have tried to win the NFL since its inception and even redoubtable ones like Danny McLennan and David Booth have tasted failure.
Votaries of home grown coaching expertise might see a vindication of their abilities in this denouement. Armando Colaco or Derrick Pereira could surely be invited to handle responsibilities at the national level, even if they have to serve as apprentices to
renowned coaches from abroad.
11th NFL statistics:
Highest scorer: Odafa Okolie (Churchill Brothers) 18 goals.
Other leading scorers:
- Ranty Martins (Dempo) - 16 goals.
- Edmislon Marques Pardal (East Bengal), Dudu Omagbemi (Sporting Clube de Goa) - 13 goals
- Sunil Chhetri, Chidi Edeh (JCT FC) - 12 goals
- Andrews Mensah (Mahindra United) - 11 goals
- Hat-trick: Odafa Okolie - four goals for Churchill Brothers vs Mohammedan Sporting at Kolkata on 02-05-07
- Highest tally: 9-0 by Mahindra United versus Mohammedan Sporting at Mumbai on 18-5-07, an NFL record.