Goa’s domination of Indian football has continued with Churchill Brothers wrapping up a second I-League crown. Mariano Dias’ side finished with a three-point margin at the top after Sunday’s final match as the state continued its run of securing every national title since the I-League was launched in 2007.
Churchill Brothers’ win continues a streak which has seen the league won by Dempo on three occasions, while Salgaocar were crowned for the first time last year. It is a remarkable achievement for the state - the nation’s smallest by area – which boasts a strong Portuguese flavour due to a cultural history with the European nation.
Despite Churchill’s success, it was only a modest year for other Goan sides in the 14-team league. The trio of Dempo, SC Goa and Salgaocar all finished firmly in mid-table, with the former the best placed, though still 15 points off the summit.
Mixed fortunes for Kolkata
Pune FC continued their strong form since their I-League debut in 2009. Hailing from the highly populated Maharashtra state just north of Goa, Pune enjoyed their best league finish and were in the hunt for a maiden title until the penultimate round.
While Goa again claimed bragging rights, it was a mixed year once again for Kolkata, a traditional hot-bed of football in the globe’s second most populace nation. East Bengal and Prayag United were consistent throughout the campaign to finish in third and fourth, ahead of Dempo. However, Mohun Bagan and Pailan Arrows struggled all season, with the latter only narrowly avoiding relegation.
Elsewhere, Shillong Lajong FC stood out for their consistently strong crowds and distinct local flavour. Hailing from the remote mountainous Meghalaya region bordered by Bangladesh, Shillong Lajong enjoyed another season of consolidation after earning promotion in 2011. Captained by a key member of the national team in Renedy Singh, Shillong ended just two places above the relegation zone, albeit nine points from danger.
There was little to cheer, however, for another team with a strong cultural identity from India’s north-east. Sikkim United finished last and will drop down to the second tier alongside Air India. Hailing from the small Himalayan state of Sikkim, wedged alongside Bhutan and Nepal, United claimed just two wins over the course of the season and will make an immediate return to the second division. This, despite the presence of the region’s favourite son, and arguably India’s most well-known football name: Baichung Bhutia. Now in his twilight years, the Sikkimese Sniper made a handful of appearances, but was otherwise kept busy as co-owner and assistant coach at the club, having also briefly filled the role of interim coach midway through the season.
Moving up to the top flight will be another Meghalaya club in Rangdajied United, where they will be joined by Kolkata’s Mohammedan.
India icon Sunil Chhetri, once of MLS club Kansas City, joined Churchill Brothers in February on loan from Sporting Lisbon, and enjoyed a solid return in front of goal. However, it was two imports that made a major impact on the goalscoring charts for Churchill with the club’s Brazilian skipper Beto and Gabon striker Henri Antchouet both featuring prominently.
Like Goa’s domination of the national league crown, Nigerian marksmen maintained a stranglehold on the league’s top goalscorer list. For the third season in a row Ranti Martins scored more goals than any other player in the league, matching a feat achieved in the three preceding seasons by compatriot Odafe Onyeka Okolie. Martins continued his prolific form despite a move to Prayag United, following a near decade-long stint at Dempo. Mohun Bagan’s Okolie, meanwhile, finished a few goals shy of Martins’ leading tally. Another Nigerian, Chidi Edeh of East Bengal, also featured prominently on the scoresheet, as did Pune’s South Sudanese striker James Moga.