I-League 2012/13 is yet to finish but Indian football fans have got a clear glimpse of the best and most consistent players of this season’s edition. As usual, foreigners have dominated the scoring charts but a number of Indian players have excelled in midfield and defence. I-League 2012/13’s team of the season is deployed in a 4-3-3 formation with overlapping full-backs.
More than one and half decades ago a young goalkeeper impressed while playing a superb match for modest Milan Bithi club against Mohun Bagan in a Kolkata League match. Then Mohun Bagan coach Amal Dutta, a master of unearthing raw talents, saw what he liked and wanted that ‘keeper in his team. A lot has come in Sandip Nandy’s career since then. He has won a number of titles, I-League included and was one of the best ‘keepers in Indian football in past one decade. However, even his biggest fan wouldn’t have guessed what the oldest custodian in this year’s league did this season. In a season strewn with mistakes from younger goal-keepers Sandip Nandy was an exception. His rock steady performances were essential in Churchill Brothers’ sprint to the title and he even picked up consecutive Man of the Match awards towards the end, including one against Mohun Bagan in an invaluable away win. After being controversially forced out of East Bengal the veteran ‘keeper suddenly showed the Kolkata clubs what they had missed out on.
East Bengal’s signing of Arnab Mondal was considered to be one of the shrewdest deals of last transfer market and the 23 year old central defender has done justice to his reputation. The Red & Golds have the best defensive record in this year’s I-League and Mondal was easily their best player in defence, often covering up for Uga Okpara’s mistakes as the Nigerian had a bad patch in middle of the season. Mondal rarely put a foot wrong in the 1800 plus minutes he played for his club and even managed to bench Raju Gaikwad, who was expected to be the first choice. Partnering Mondal in heart of the I-League team of the season is Pune FC stopper Anas Edathoika. The 27 year old Keralite had possibly the greatest season of his career and was one of the main pillars in the Pune FC defence which led them close to I-League title. Usually designated as man-marker for opponents’ best strikers Anas showed tremendous discipline and picked up just one yellow card in the entire campaign. One of the best defensive performances, across all matches, in this year’s I-League came when he successfully bottled up Odafa Okalie and Pune FC snatched an important win in Kolkata towards the end.
Anas’ club-mate Gurjinder Kumar has slowly but steadily established himself as the best left-back in India right now and he had a strong season yet again. The TFA graduate was a crucial contributor to James Moga’s impressive goal tally this season thanks to his overlapping runs and crosses. Gurjinder is still in his early 20s and can prove to be a regular member in the national team for years to come. Gurjinder on left-wing will be complimented perfectly with a man who was perhaps the best full-back in I-League this season, Denzil Franco. The right-back was an absolutely essential component of Churchill Brothers’ impressive season and his darting runs along the touchline caused problems to almost every adversary this season. Franco also clawed his way into the national team thanks to his performance.
A three man midfield requires a good passer and Prayag United’s Lalkamal Bhowmik fits the bill perfectly. Bhowmik first garnered limelight by scoring a wonder goal against Bayern Munich in IFA Shield Final in 2005 but it was in this season that he seems to have fully reached his potential. Easily the best play-maker in Indian football right now, Bhowmik was one of the top assist makers in this year’s competition. He has also made a long due come-back to the national team and with age on his side, looks to retain his position in future. His set-piece delivery is an under-rated but important weapon in Bhowmik’s armory.
Lenny Rodriguez has become a somewhat surprising starter in Wim Koervermans’ Indian team but exposure to International football suddenly seems to have improved his domestic form. The Churchill Brothers midfielder’s energetic and pressing style of play in midfield eased pressure on creative players like Beto. Lenny also showed wonderful levels of fitness and barely missed out minutes in Churchill Brothers’ campaign.
The third midfielder in this midfield will be the first foreign entrant in team of the season in the form of Japanese Katsumi Yusa. The Asian midfielder joined ONGC two years ago and was spuriously impressive but this season he has truly burst onto the scene. The Oilmen had a surprisingly good season and Katsumi was often their only spark of creativity upfront. With six goals, he was the second highest scorer in ONGC and also raked up a number of assists as well.
Beto’s association with Indian football is one decade long yet the veteran continues to deliver quality every season. He had won everything that can be won in India with Dempo but has been equally prolific with cross state rivals Churchill Brothers. Age has somewhat caught up with him and he didn’t play a number of games this season due to injuries. However, when he did, he was almost always the one who made a difference for his team. With over a dozen goals the Brazilian had best strike-rate for his club and was also their chief architect in terms of assists.
South Sudanese International James Moga may not have scored as many goals as Chidi or Odafa but his overall impact was perhaps greater than the two. The experienced striker was Pune FC’s star signing and he provided the goods by scoring 15 goals in 23 games. Moga is an extremely hard working player and often tracked back to help his midfield, making his importance in Pune FC, a team which relies in team-game, paramount. Moga also scored some very important goals which included the fastest goal in history of I-League against United Sikkim, braces against Prayag United and Dempo and the match winner against ONGC which broke the Oilmen’s six month long unbeaten home streak.
With a one goal per game striker-rate, it is hardly difficult to judge who was the player of the season this year. Ranty Martins stitched up the highest scorer award in I-League for the third year running and proved once again that despite not carrying the price of Odafa or Tolgay he is as good as them in term of scoring goals. In 2013 he scored goals in every game for Prayag United save one and overall he scored at least one goal against every club in this season’s I-League. Martins has a history of scoring a bucket load of goals in single games, being the record holder in I-League for the same feat. In United he managed to repeat his goal scoring feats by finding the back of the net five times in a 10-1 thrashing of United Sikkim. Prayag might not have won the league in the end but there is little doubt that Ranty had a spotless season overall.
Honorable mentions: Akram Moghrabi, Billal Najjarin, Clifford Miranda, Echezona Anyichie, Dipak Mondal, Dawson Fernandez, Lalrindika Ralte, Nicolau Colaco, Eric Brown, Sachin Gawas, Milan Singh, Zohib Amiri, Mehtab Hussain