8 best matches of India’s I-League with most thrilling finish

India play in the world cup-fifa-world-cup-football-india

While people are all gushing over the ISL, and its significance for Indian football, it is usually forgotten that India already has an existing football league, the I – League, which will turn 11 years old in 2018. In fact, it is here where the promoted Kashmir champions, Real Kashmir FC, will be playing in the 2018-19 season. Given that it such an integral part of our footballing culture, ESPN recently looked back at some of the best matches of the I League. We go a step further, and attempt to find out: what happened next?

2007-08 – Churchill Brothers VS Mahindra United

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Churchill Brothers

The first season of the I-League saw Nigerian Odafa Okolie score 4 goals for Churchill Brothers against Mahindra United, in a critically praised performance. What happened next?

Odafa would go on to become Indian football’s highest paid earner at Mohun Bagan in 2011, and is one of the highest goal scorers (if not THE highest) in the I League. Time has however not been kind to him; while he was the highest goal scorer in the league in 2007, 2017 saw him sign up for I League Second Division side, Southern Samity. 2018 was even more of a farce for him, as he returned back to the first division, joining Gokulam Kerala; after a mere 3 games, the now-33-year-old was let go of by the club. As for the two clubs…that comes later.

2007-08 – Churchill Brothers Vs Air India & Dempo FC Vs Viva Kerala

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Dempo SC

The last day of the first season was an excellent advertisement for the I League: two title contenders, against two other teams which had nothing to really play for. Both Churchill & Dempo were tied on points, and a goal difference of 4 goals was all that separated them. Who would win?

As it turned out, Dempo FC did win the title that year. Their opponents would however not be that lucky; Viva Kerala, even after complying with the AFC club licensing criteria in 2010, would find themselves cash-strapped, leading them to sign over their ownership and name to Chirag Computers in 2011. The ‘new’ Chirag United Club Kerala would go on to be relegated in the 2011-12 season, after which the club folded up. A somewhat more scary story is that of Air India; their name is just missing from the news, 2013 onwards. Have they been relegated, or have they been shut down? No one knows.

2008-09 Mumbai FC Vs Mahindra United

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Mahindra United

Mumbai FC, in their inaugral season, and in their first three matches, defeated all former champions of Indian club football. Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Mahindra United; all three were defeated. What happened to Mumbai FC?

Mumbai FC is still there, though somewhat reduced. They have always finished at the middle positions of the league, never too close to relegation but never looking like challenging for the title either.It does not help their case that the ISL has a team called Mumbai City FC…Mahindra United meanwhile, after showing lots of promise as the one club for all Mumbai kids, instead shut shop in 2010, across all formats.

2008-09 Churchill Brothers Vs Mohammedan Sporting

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Mohammedan Sporting

This was the season where Churchill finally won the I League, after being denied that & the earlier NFL numerous times. They were managed that season by Serbia’s Zoran Djordjevic, whose emotions were apparently something to see. But then?

Well, Churchill Brothers was very lucky to have the Serbian as their coach. The list of teams he has coached at, according to Wikipedia, is intimidating; he has been to Iran, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar, Sudan…the list goes on. Wherever he has gone though, he has done something memorable. After leaving Churchill, he guided Bangladesh to a gold medal in the South Asian Games 2010 – only the third time they ever won an international competition, in their existence. He was then with Al-Majd in Syria till 2011 (around the time the present unrest started), and with the Phillipines Under-23 Olympic team in 2012; to cap them all though, he took charge of the world’s youngest nation’s football team: South Sudan, in 2013. In a later twist, both the clubs were suspended by the AIFF in 2014 for failing to comply with the AFC club licensing regulations; Churchill Brothers, one of the most successful Indian clubs, went to court against this decision, though it was later brought back to the I League first division in 2016-17 (after 3 clubs from Goa withdrew from the competition) without a mention of the AFC club regulations. Meanwhile, Mohamedden (one of the oldest football clubs in India; founded in 1891) remained behind in the 2nd Division, though lately things may have started to look up for them.

2009-10 Mohun Bagan Vs East Bengal

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Mohun Bagan

If there is an Indian counterpart to El Clasico, it is undoubtedly this fixture, played at the cavernous (about 1 lakh people can squeeze in) Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata. This one, is as good an introduction as any to this almost 100-years long rivalry. And oh, the match ended 5-3. Definitely counts among the best matches of the I League.

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East Bengal

2013-14 Dempo SC Vs Bengaluru FC

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Bengaluru FC

Yet another club in its debut season, Bengaluru FC however managed to keep their form intact till the last match, almost certain to win the title. 90 minutes later, Bengaluru FC had won the I League in their debut season.

Bengaluru FC would go on to play in the AFC Cup (Asia’s Europa League) and become the first team from India to reach the final; they lost 1-0 to Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya from Iraq. In 2017, they gave the biggest surprise though; backed by the deep pockets of Jindal Steel, Bengaluru FC – often praised as the best managed club in India – left the I League and joined the ISL. If that does not tell you about football in India, nothing will. Dempo‘s story is even more tragic; one of the best sides from Goa’s football scene, they were relegated for the first time in 2015. Though they were back in the first division in 2016, the lack of clarity on the future of the ISL & I League led them to withdraw their team from all competitions.

2014-15 Bengaluru FC Vs Royal Wahingdoh FC

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Royal Wahingdoh FC

The 2009-10 season was the first time that a team from India’s northeast was playing in the I League (Shillong League). 5 years later though, everything had changed. Another team, also from Shillong faced off against the defending champions on their home ground. The match ended in a 3-3 draw.

Unfortunately, that was the first & last season for Royal Wahingdoh in the I League, after which they just competed within Meghalaya. 2014 also marked the first season of the ISL, and from the beginning it was clear just who was getting the most attention. While Royal Wahingdoh had it all – a fan base, merchandise sales (have you ever purchased an Indian football club’s jersey?) and an almost always full stadium, they just could not face the prospect of competing with the glamour and the attention paid to the ISL. As of 2017, the owner Dominic Suntga – who had the club on lease for 10 years – did not extend the lease; in effect, the club has gone back to what it was before, a community run club. The staff & personnel have mostly all gone over to Shillong United FC, another football club in Meghalaya, owned by the same owner.

2016-17 Shillong Lajong Vs Aizawl FC

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Aizawl FC

It is amusing to look back at predictions. For instance, this one for the 2016-17 season proclaimed that ‘at the other end of the table newbies DSK Shivajians and Aizawl FC will want to avoid an all-mighty relegation scrap. Both the teams face a steep learning curve with little room to err.’ The problem was that less than a year later, Aizawl FC had arrived at Shillong, needing a draw to win the I League. After a number of heart-in-the-mouth moments, Aizawl FC managed to draw the match 1-1, enough to be the first Northeast team to win the title.

After several public proclamations against the AIFF’s proposal of merging the I League & ISL together, on the field Aizawl FC managed to end at fifth position; given that they had lost their coach and a number of their title-winning players, this was credible. As of now, they are recruiting new players for the 2018 season.

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