“I will settle for nothing less than the title” thunders Churchill Brothers Sports Club’s charismatic and soccer crazy patron Churchill Alemao, at the beginning of every season. Churchill’s passion for and association with the beautiful game is legendary.
It started off decades ago, firstly sponsoring football tournaments at the village level in his hometown of Salcete- Goa’s soccer crazy taluka. Almost every football tournament in those days used money from Churchill’s generous and large pockets. Later he adopted the village team Varca Sports Club (the village from where he hails) and rechristened it as Churchill Brothers Sports Club. That was the beginning of an incredible journey, a journey that began from Goa’s Third Division, to finally the euphoria of an I-League victory.
Years of toil, hard work, sleepless nights and anxiety was well worth it. Churchill’s moment had finally arrived. Churchill had been denied the crown of Indian champions twice on the last day. In the inaugural NFL, they led the table for most of the campaign, however the faltered on the very last day as JCT pipped them near the finishing line. They lost to Mohun Bagan by a solitary goal at Goa, when only a draw could have helped them to clinch the 99-00 NFL title. They once again lost the title to Dempo on the last day in 2008, this time on goal-difference as both teams finished with same points. After coming agonizingly close on four previous occasions, they were not to be denied on the next occasion.
Ask Mr. Churchill about his incredible journey and he’ll tell you an emotional tale. A tale about how he used to travel miles to scout for talented youngsters to play for his club, a tale about how he was sometimes forced to sell off his ancestral property to pay his players’ wages, a tale of how he sometimes diverted some of his earnings meant for his family towards football. His passion for football was unwavering, at times fanatic. Nothing could come in the way of football; even family commitments took a beating. That was Churchill Alemao for you- football was always his first love.
His foresight and knowledge about the game was exemplary. Churchill was the first Goan club to have a shirt sponsor, firstly with Coca Cola, then Zee and most recently the multi crore deal with Kunnath Pharmaceuticals. Churchill Brothers was perhaps the first team in Goa to pay huge salaries to players – something only the big Kolkata clubs could afford to do at that time. This attracted many players thus enabling them to compete with the all conquering Kolkata sides like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Churchill in a way revolutionized professional soccer in Goa. Then with the I-League win, came the honour of representing India at the prestigious AFC Cup. And what a debut it was – reaching the knockout round in their very first season in Asia.
Becoming Part of the Elite Group in Indian Football
Fast forward to the present and Churchill has built a virtual dream team. His team now attracts some of the best players in India in the form of Steven Dias, Mohammad Rafi, Denzil Franco and a certain Odafa Okolie. Except for the Federation Cup, they have won every trophy in India, including the Durand Cup and the IFA Shield in a space of seven days last year. In fact they were the first and only Goan team to lift the prestigious IFA Shield. Churchill Brothers are now one of the automatic title contenders along with East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Dempo in every season.
A Dempo style attitude of keeping his flock together has meant that players know each others’ game well. However, this year they have lost quite a few players in the transfer window. Naoba Singh and Reisangmi Vashum, who were there with the team for over four years, and made a name for themselves, have moved to East Bengal. The heart of their midfield, Ogba Kalu has switched loyalty to Dempo Sports Club, Nascimento Silveira has crossed over to Chirag United while Felix Chimaokwu has moved on loan to Viva Kerala. They have also lost promising youngster Lalrindika Ralte to AIFF XI.
But Churchill have probably gained more than they have lost. Two of India’s star players and former Mahindra United stalwarts – Steven Dias and Mohammad Rafi have entered the Churchill camp. So have Rauf Khan and Dharmaraj Ravanan. And together with the Nigerian goal machine, Odafa, they have a decent enough squad to challenge for the glory. Churchill’s coaching staff has also undergone a makeover. Coach Carlos Roberto Pereira Da Silva has made way for former Singapore Armed Forces coach, Vaithilingam Subramanium, who possesses the mandatory AFC “A” coaching lisence. In fact Churchill is known to have a penchant for foreign coaches. Scottish Danny Mclennan, Morroccan Karim Bencherifa, Nigerian Emeka Ezuego and Serbian Zoran Djordjevic have all coached the side before.
The final piece missing in the jigsaw is undoubtedly their foreign player. They signed former Vasco Sports Club striker Koko Sakibo and Salgaocar’s Iranian defender Rouhollah Sameinia. However two months into the season they found out that Koko wasn’t “gelling well” with fellow Nigerian Odafa and Rouhollah Sameinia was found surplus to requirements. They offloaded Koko who has rejoined Vasco, while Semenia is close to signing for Dempo.
They then tried Cameroonian Ernest Emako during the Durand Cup but deregistered him a week later after finding out that he wasn’t good enough. Since then New Zealander Kayne Vincent, a former Mumbai FC player has joined them on loan. They have also reportedly signed Australian Henry Karpeh. Although he has been practicing with the team for close to a month, he hasn’t played a match as his International Transfer Certificate (ITC) hasn’t come through. Also with the transfer window scheduled to open only on 16th January 2011, it will be a while before we can see him in action. Brazilian midfielder Nuno Amorim is also likely to join them in the winter transfer window.
Churchill are definitely missing their Rock Of Gibraltar, Gourmangi Singh who is with the India camp. In the absence of Mangi, Rowilson and the experienced Ravanan have stepped up and performed admirably conceding just 4 goals in 5 games. Luckily for Churchill, they have played just two “big” teams – Mohun Bagan and Dempo; so the defence hasn’t been tested much. Robert Lalthalma has been the standout performer in the defence for Churchill at left back. In fact Robert has been knocking at the doors of the India National Team for quite a while. His electric speed on the flanks and pin point crossing has been a real treat to watch – not to forget his amazing ability as a dead ball specialist.
At right back India U-23 player Denzil Franco too has been satisfactory and the absence of Naoba Singh hasn’t been felt much. The problem however remains the lack of depth at defence, with Warun Deep and Gourmangi Singh being the only other recognized defenders. Should there be an injury to any of the defenders, Churchill will have a tough time finding cover for them.
Churchill has a new look midfield this year with as many as four new faces. In the games played so far young Israil Gurung and the pacy Beenesh Balan were played on the flanks with Kham Thang Paite and Lenny Rodrigues in the centre of the park. Ex Viva Kerala player MP Sakeer too has also been used. On the whole, Churchill’s midfield certainly lacks creativity and quality.
Lenny, Bineesh and Israil are still young and are on a learning curve while Paite is still finding his groove after missing almost the entire last season with an injury. Charan Rai also has sometimes filled the right side of midfield but hasn’t been able to conjure up enough fodder for Odafa to feed on. The absence of Vashum is being felt here.
They will definitely be looking forward to the return of Steven Dias who could give them that much needed spark and thrust in midfield. The luck of the draw certainly has been favouring them though. They play relatively easy games from now till the 20th of Jan – the day they could welcome back their Team India stars.
Next up for them is ONGC at Kolhapur, followed by AIFF XI, Salgaocar, HAL and Air India – all at home. Certainly taking at least 13 points from these 15 wouldn’t be a problem for the present Churchill squad. They could get Steven and company for the trip to Balewadi on the 22nd of January, by which time their foreign players could also be registered.
One word would be enough to describe Churchill’s attack; make that three – Odafa Onyeka Okolie – Churchill’s one man army, their talisman, their flag bearer and their goal scoring machine. Such has been the dependence of Churchill on Odafa that they broke the bank this year to make him the highest paid player in India (reportedly one crore for a season) after he nearly quit the club for Calcutta. Odafa has been pampered to such an extent that they even sacked coach Karim Bencherifa – after he reportedly had differences with him – so as not to antagonize the Nigerian.
Koko too left since he couldn’t team up well enough with his fellow countryman. But its not for nothing that Churchill was ready to pay an astronomical sum to keep their most prized possession at Varca. Everything at Churchill revolves around Odafa. He has been the highest scorer in the previous four editions of the I-league scoring 16, 22, 26 and 22 goals in the four editions.
In fact, Odafa has already scored 9 of Churchill’s 10 goals this season including four in the match against Mumbai FC. Going by his present form one wouldn’t bet against him becoming the top scorer yet again. And with Mohammad Rafi yet to arrive, the best could still come for Churchill’s attack – something for defenders to start quivering about.
The Path Ahead
Inconsistency has been Churchill’s biggest faux pas in the last season, and they have shown glimpses of that inconsistency in this season as well. Flashes of brilliance, in between mediocrity, has been the order of the day. On one day they pump in five goals against an unbeaten Mumbai FC in an away tie, while in the next game they produce an insipid performance against a not-too-good Viva Kerala side at home – being lucky to escape with a draw after getting awarded a dubious penalty.
They were also lucky to escape with draws against Dempo – they equalized with just 4 minutes left to play, and JCT, which could have easily ended up in defeats. Last season too they led the table for most of the season but a mid season slump saw them lose pole position to Dempo, although later they recovered well to take a creditable runners-up spot.
In their own admission, they lost the title last season due to inconsistent performances, something Churchill Alemao and Vincent Subramanium wouldn’t want to repeat at any cost. Predicting Churchill’s performance this season is definitely a hard task considering their enigmatic performances. For the sake of their die hard supporters in South Goa, one just hopes there are much more flashes of brilliance in between the inevitable mediocre performances from the Churchill brigade this time around.
~ Jonathan Desousa