East Bengal coach, Trevor Morgan, had a simple question for reporters after his side defeated Pailan Arrows in their opening IFA Shield 2013 match. He asked if anyone knew which team they were supposed to play next! This in a nut-shell summed up the Academy award worthy comedy drama that was dished out by IFA in the form of IFA Shield 2013. The Indian Football Association, one of the oldest football organizations in the country, has lost its sheen long time back. It has struggled to balance the local league with I-League fixtures while the IFA Shield has been reduced to an annual fest of ignorance and disgrace.
Off Field Comedy
The problems regarding IFA Shield started well before the tournament started. Testament to how poorly one of India’s three blue ribbon tournaments is perceived these days, two I-League clubs pulled out of IFA Shield before it started. Lajong and Mumbai FC pulled out citing injury and squad strength related problems and were hastily replaced by United Sikkim. United was clearly a last ditch effort to save face as they had to cut short a tour of Bhutan to participate in IFA Shield, without much match practice. Unsurprisingly, Baichung Bhutia’s club doled out three highly mediocre performances which betrayed their lack of preparation. Pailan Arrows assistant coach claimed that they were not even aware that they had to participate in IFA Shield before it was officially announced! Arrows had given leaves to a number of footballers and had to recall them to participate in Shield.
Siliguri, a stronghold for East Bengal, hosted one of the groups. Even local organizers were not wholly interested in IFA Shield as it would drain away the monetary rewards they gained from Federation Cup few months back. Unsurprisingly, thanks to frequent schedule changes the matches were not properly promoted and only a few hundred turned up to watch them. The press-box was locked in Siliguri’s stadium and reporters had to sit under a temporary pandal along with rest of the spectators.
Another comic episode came during determining the fourth team for East Bengal’s group. Muktijoddha from Bangladesh was initially set to take part but dropped out at last moment due to visa related issues. IFA made a desperate attempt to get an army team from Nepal, the tournament had already started by then, to take Muktijoddha’s place. They failed to get a foreign team as ONGC was hastily installed in IFA Shield. Deportivo Saprissa, another foreign team arrived late in IFA Shield, a reason why IFA had to change the schedule multiple times within the space of one week.
One must wonder the whole point of organizing a tournament just for the sake of organizing. The tournament which once had added a new chapter in India’s freedom struggle when Mohun Bagan won it in 1911 has now lost all its sheen. Such organizational gaffes are unlikely to bring back fan’s interest in IFA Shield. IFA will be better off investing the 50 lakh plus total prize money into their Academy, rather than hosting a tournament which seems to be unwanted in most quarters.
Roll of Honour
Best Player: Carlos Hernandez
Best Goal: Andrew Barisic (East Bengal v Mohun Bagan)
Best Individual Performance: Odafa Okolie (Mohun Bagan v United Sikkim)
Team of the Tournament: See image below
On Field Drama
East Bengal began their campaign with a victory against Pailan Arrows but the match was marred by an ugly brawl between players from both sides. They needed a late, late Manandeep Singh penalty to see off ONGC in the second match and there was again some controversy regarding their winning penalty. There was no controversy in their third match as a brace from Edeh Chidi helped East Bengal to defeat Prayag United for the first time this season. Prayag United also reached the semi-final after a 5-0 thrashing of Pailan Arrows and a 2-1 win over ONGC with Carlos Hernandez scoring a sumptuous free-kick.
Mohun Bagan was on a long unbeaten streak when they opened their IFA Shield campaign and duly delivered a commanding 3-0 win over Pune FC. This was the first time the Mariners had beaten PFC by this score-line and they were further encouraged by a brace from CS Sabeeth. The Keralite striker had a difficult start to his Mohun Bagan career but has discovered a rich vein of form recently. Their second match was an Odafa show as the Nigerian scored 5 times to dismantle a hapless United Sikkim 5-1. Mohun Bagan’s unbeaten streak snapped against Deportivo Saprissa B side when veteran Walter Centeno scored a beautiful free-kick to grab a 1-0 win. Deportivo started Shield with an uninspired 0-0 draw with Pune FC but qualified for semi-final thanks to the win over Mohun Bagan and a 3-1 win over United Sikkim.
Carlos Hernandez squared off against the most successful club from his country when Prayag United faced Deportivo Saprissa in the first semi-final. Mohammad Rafique and Moya scored in back to back minutes as the match finished 1-1 in regulation time. Kayne Vincent struck on 105th minute in what proved to be the eventual match winning goal.
The Kolkata derby in semi-final was a face saver for IFA Shield 2013. For the first time in this year’s edition ticket demands rose as the temperature rose once again for India’s battle royale. East Bengal had played in AFC Cup in Vietnam few days before the derby and had requested for a postponement of the match, to no avail. Yet, despite being more fatigued it was the Red & Golds who dominated the match after the kick-off whistle. Things changed when CS Sabeeth once again scored on 46th minute as Mohun Bagan began to enjoy a strong spell in midfield. Just when all looked lost for East Bengal winter signing Andrew Barisic popped up with a world class goal to draw level. There were no more goals in extra-time as the derby went to penalty kicks. Odafa Okalie and Nirmal Chhetri missed their spot kicks as East Bengal romped home 4-2 in tie-breaker. IFA Shield 2013 was one of the few remaining opportunities for Mohun Bagan to win a trophy this season but their hopes went up in smoke.
East Bengal and Prayag United faced off in a repeat of last year’s IFA Shield on 20th March. East Bengal were buoyed by the fact that they had already beaten Prayag once in Shild 2013 while the men in purple had a better recent head to head to record. Edeh Chidi, East Bengal’s top scorer in the tournament didn’t start because of a back injury but Andrew Barisic created enough problems for Prayag back-line. The final was an even match with both teams creating a number of goal-scoring chances. The winning goal came twelve minutes before the final whistle when Ranty Martins latched to Tulunga’s pass to out Prayag ahead.
As the final whistle went off Prayag United had won their second major trophy in Indian football, after winning Durand Cup two years back. IFA Shield was possibly a small prize for the investment done in Prayag’s team but it will provide a new injection of enthusiasm to the club. This was the first IFA Shield title in Ranty Martins’ career, a testament to his consistent showings for Prayag this season as well as Shield 2013. Carlos Hernandez also played wonderfully in the tournament, putting behind the recent controversy of his problems with Prayag United officials. Coincidentally, Mohammad Rafique, Prayag’s hero in Durand Cup win was also a crucial player in their Shield triumph.