A brand new I-League kicked off on Saturday as the AIFF, together with their marketing partners IMG-Reliance, went overdrive in an attempt to make this year’s I-League the best ever. The new League opened with a brand new logo, television coverage, match day operations handled by clubs – unlike previous years where the state associations organized games and a gala opening ceremony that featured the likes of famous Bengali Jibonmukhi singer Nachiketa and tennis icon Leander Paes.  There was also a musical show with about 50-odd drummers (dhaki) making a round of the stadium which was followed by TV artist Mir’s live rock band performance.

The unofficial opener was held in Goa where defending champions Salgaocar Sports Club took on former champions Dempo Sports Club in a mouth watering derby clash at Fatorda. It was obvious that the 3:30 kick off in the stifling humidity took a toll on the players and the game never really lived up to the expectation. Dempo started with the lone foreigner in Ranti Martins, with Koko Sakibo on the bench. The midfield had an international line-up with Indian national team players Climax Lawrence, Peter Carvalho, Anthony Pereira and Clifford Miranda.

For Salgaocar, Chidi Edeh and Ryuji Sueoka started upfront with their captain Luciano Sabrosa marshalling the defence. Ryuji though had a disappointing game and failed to live up to the expectations of the Salgaocar supporters who gathered in large numbers. The Salgaocar midfield that had new signing Ishfaq Ahmed, Tomba Singh, Rocus Lamare and the young Gilbert Oliveira failed to conjure up decent chances for their forwards to capitalize on.

The opening ceremony (Image courtesy – AIFF)

Dempo should have taken the lead much earlier had not the prodigal Joaquim Abranches miss a tap in from handshaking distance after being brilliantly fed by Anthony Pereira. The stop-start match was finally settled in the 80th minute when a defensive mistake allowed last seasons top scorer Ranti Martins to slot the winner past Karanjit Singh and earn Dempo the three points. Mahesh Gawli, donning the captain’s armband for Dempo, produced a stellar performance in defense winning the Man of The Match award. It was a match devoid of excitement, no clear cut chances, it had Dempo’s famed passing brand of football missing but being the first game both teams could be excused. The win gives a big confidence boost for Dempo who are playing with just two registered foreigners at the moment while for Salgaocar they need to regroup quickly and get their title defense back on track.

In Bangalore, Chirag United Kerala under new management got off to a perfect start by beating HAL in their own den at the refurbished Bangalore football stadium. CK Vineet scored the goal in the 13th minute after an absolute howler by HAL keeper P. Pramod. Chirag Kerala also had Charles Dzisah to thank for some stout defending throughout the match that earned them valuable three points. For HAL it looks like going to be another long battle to avoid the drop.

Shillong Lajong, after a year’s hiatus and an unnecessary distraction of a court case, held their nerve to gain a valuable point against Pune FC at Balewadi. The past few days were stressful for Lajong who had to deal with an unnecessary court case that threatened to put their place in this year’s league in jeopardy. But they put that distraction aside to register their first points of this year’s League. Pune FC started with Shahinlal Mololy in goal after their ace keeper and captain Subrata Paul was ruled out for at least two months with an injury. Pune FC started with foreign recruits Arata and Douhou and had plenty of chances to take the lead. Douhou in particular was guilty of missing at least two clear cut chances. Lajong strikers especially John Menyongor too had decent chances but failed to convert any of them.

The refurbished Bangalore stadium

In the final game of the day which was also the official kick off of the I-League 2011-12, last season’s runners up East Bengal played host to Churchill Brothers at a rain soaked Yuba Bharati Kirarangan. East Bengal had their confidence sky high after their recent Super Cup win over Federation Cup champions Salgaocar Sports Club, but the occasion seemed to get the better of them as they faltered to a 0-1 loss against the Goan title contenders. Trevor Morgan started with the paring of Australian Tolgay Ozbay and Robin Singh up front due to Alan Gow’s last minute fitness concerns. That move seemed to be justified as Tolgay made decent runs inside the box and put the Churchill defense under severe pressure. His dribbling, deft touches and off the ball runs were enough to create panic in the Churchill defense. The Australian was unfortunate not to scribe his name on the scoring chart as a legitimate goal was ruled offside by the linesman for mysterious reasons late in to the first half. Later, around 75th minute mark, Tolgay’s right footed bullet stunned the Churchill goalie Felix DeSousa, but the woodwork came to the Goan giants rescue.

However Churchill took the lead against the run of play when Nigerian forward N.D. Opara broke free from Nirmal Chhetri and smacked the ball past East Bengal goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who was signed from Indian Arrows. That turned out to be the winner as East Bengal failed to equalize much to the disappointment of their home fans. Trevor Morgan’s 3-5-2 formation that yielded results last year was a failure this time around with Penn Orji failing to make much of an impact on the game in the absence of inspirational Mehtab Hossain. Churchill, who were missing Beto due to an injury, were dealt a further blow when Bineesh Balan was taken off after 20 minutes with a hamstring pull. However they kept their nerve and fought hard to register all three points.

It was a winning start though for East Bengal’s bitter rivals as they eased past Indian Arrows, rechristened as Pailan Arrows, 3-1 at the Salt Lake. Odafa Okolie registered his first goal for the Mariners in the I-League and made it a debut to remember by notching up a superb hat trick. After the turmoil that engulfed the Mariners in the past few weeks, the win and especially Odafa’s hat trick will be a welcome boost.

After unceremoniously sacking their English coach Steve Darby, Mohun Bagan appointed Subrata Bhattacharya as their technical director. He started off with Jose Barreto on the bench and Odafa upfront with Sunil Chhetri. Hudsom Lima started in midfield along with Manish Maithani, Jewel Raja and the versatile Syed Rahim Nabi But the Green and Maroons got off to a worst possible start after just 8 minutes when an innocuous cross by Lalrozama Fanai was bungled by Sangram Mukherjee and went in the net after rebounding off the post. Bagan seemed to be rattled and their midfield looked completely out of sorts. Odafa was hounded by three Pailan defenders every time he got the ball and he hardly got an inch of space to create shots.

After the initial bundle of nerves Bagan began to settle in. First Odafa’s shot was saved off the goal line and then a Jewel Raja shot found the safe hands of Pailan keeper Naveen Kumar. At the stroke of half hour, Nabi put in a dangerous cross that was headed just over by Manish Maithani. However for all the ball possession and the chances that Bagan had towards the later part of the first half they had nothing to show on the scoreboard and the young Pailan Arrows team left the pitch at half time with a goal to the good. Bagan came in with much more determination in the second half and it didn’t take them long to equalize. In the 66th minute Brazilian Hudson Lima crossed in a delightful ball and who else but Odafa Okolie was there to put it in the net. Five minutes later Bagan went into the lead when Odafa scored yet again, this time volleying from close range. Odafa completed his hat trick and sealed the match for Bagan in stoppage time after he bulldozed his way into the box and unleashed a fierce drive that beat the Pailan keeper all ends up.

Air India got a thrashing in the Mumbai derby losing 1-4 to local rivals Mumbai FC at the Balewadi Sports Complex. It was a perfect start for Khalid Jamil’s men after goals from Ebi Sukore, Nicholas Fernandes and a brace from Sampath Kuttymani sealed a crushing 4-1 win that takes them to the top of the standings. It was a complete dominance from Khalid Jamil’s men right from tart to finish. Air India scored a consolation goal through Japanese Takayuki Omi in stoppage time. The Airmen have plenty of work to do else they will find themselves mired in the relegation battle before the season has even reached the half way stage.

The Sporting mascot “Zumba”

In the final game of the day Sporting Clube de Goa made a colorful return to the league off the pitch but were held to a 2-2 draw on the pitch against Prayag United Sports Club. The match saw Sporting Clube de Goa release their official mascot “Zumba” and also saw them release their anthem “Flaming Oranje”.

Yusif Yakubu gave Prayag the lead after a brilliant one two with Kayne Vincent found the former Salgaocar striker with plenty of space inside the box to take a vicious shot past Milagrio Medeira in the Sporting goal. Sorting enjoyed the better share of possession but failed to create clear cut chances. They were rewarded however for their persistence in the 33rd minute when new recruit from South Sudan James Moga headed in a Freiman Peixoto cross to equalize for Sporting and go into the break on level terms. After the break Sporting pressed hard for the winner only to be stunned again by Yusif Yakubu in the 77th minute after another great move by the Ghanian sharpshooter. But six minutes from the end James Moga turned out to be Sporting’s savior with another headed goal.

Star of the Week: Odafa Okolie (Mohun Bagan)

The Nigerian goal machine continued from where he left off from Churchill Brothers by notching up a superb hat trick in his debut I-League match for the Mariners against Pailan Arrows.

Goal of the Week: Odafa Okolie (Mohun Bagan)

The goal of the week award too goes to Odafa for his superb volley to score his second goal on that fateful night. After receiving a pass from Dhanarajan on the right wing, Ashim Biswas floated in a perfect ball for the Nigerian goal machine who unleashed a superb side volley that crashed in to the back of the net much to the cheer of home supporters. 

Save of the Week: Karanjit Singh (Salgaocar SC)

In the 12th minute Salgaocar goalkeeper Karanjit Singh made a superb diving save off a Climax Lawrence curler to deny Dempo an early lead.

Miss of the Week: Joaquim Abranches (Dempo SC)

It could easily win the miss of the season award. With the goalkeeper at his mercy and from just five yards out Abranches missed a simple tap in that surely had Armando Colaco fuming.

TheHardTackle’s Team of the Week:

Formation: 4-3-3

Shahinlal Meloy (Pune FC); – Chika Wali (Prayag), Mahesh Gawli (Dempo), Charles Dzisah (Chirag Kerala), Wailadmi Passah (Lajong); – Nicholus Rodrigues (Mumbai FC), Ebi Sukore (Mumbai FC), Syed Rahim Nabi (Mohun Bagan); – James Moga (Sporting Goa), Yusif Yakubu (Prayag), Odafa Okolie (Mohun Bagan) 


  • Shatanjoy

    What a great summarization of Week 1’s I League encounters..Including small snippets(posting youtube links of speacial monments of each game, wherever possible will be greatly appreciated)..Nevertheless, great analysis..Kudos to the Hard Tackle team!!

  • Jose

    I just love the articles on hardtackle especially of Jonathan and Deb.