Dempo the debutant victors

Atletico Mineiro, DC United, Cologne, Manning Rangers - winners of inaugural championships the world over will forever carry unique esteem. Joining the list over the weekend was Dempo SC, who emerged triumphant from a maiden Indian I-League rich on success and high on drama.

Indeed, the fully professionalised, import-injected upgrade to the National Football League excited throughout, and culminated in a thrilling three-way, two-state battle for gold on the final day. JCT and Churchill Brothers both kept their side of the bargain by winning impressively, 4-0 and 3-0 over Salgaocar and Air-India respectively, but Dempo overwhelmed Viva Kerala 4-1 away to pip the latter - their Goa rivals - to the title on goal difference.

"It's a fairy tale ending. All the tension, pressure and sleepless nights have been worth it," said Dempo coach Armando Colaco. "It was a great team effort that brought us this title, despite us being handicapped by injuries to leading players such as Mahesh Gawli. We are champions in every sense of the word."

It was a deserved triumph for Dempo, winners of the concluding National Football League in 2007. This distinction earned them the right to kick off the new I-League, which they did by serving notice of their title intentions with a 3-0 win over Salgaocar.

Thereafter, Colaco's charges slid into cruise control and their 4-1 defeat of Churchill Brothers on 10 January left them unbeaten and seven points clear of their cross-state rivals. However, a storm brewed on their expected stroll towards the I-League prize later that month when, depleted by injuries, they embarked upon a run of just one win in six matches.

This sequence opened the door for Churchill and JCT, but the duo were too guilty of dropping points during the run-in. Dempo entered the concluding matchday in command, and an outstanding, two-goal display from Edeh Chidi in Kochi thrust them to only their second victory in seven outings - and the title.

Nigerian impact
The Nigerian was central to his team's triumph, alongside his compatriot and captain Ranty Soleye, who was on target against Viva Kerala. More crucially, he netted the vital equaliser against Salgaocar in the penultimate round that kept Dempo in pole position. He dedicated the achievement to his nine-month-old daughter Blessings. "She was born on the day I signed a contract with the Dempo," Soleye explained.

Another Nigerian to excel during the 2007/08 campaign was Odafe Okolie, who made arresting strides under the expert tutelage of Moroccan coach Karim Bencherifa. The striker netted 22 times to finish as the league's leading marksman, although his usual poise in front of goal deserted him in Churchill's final game, when he scored once but spurned a host of chances when a goal-blitz was required.

"It was not our day," he rued. "We threw everything forward but we missed so many chances. It was unbelievable."

Bencherifa, meanwhile, was full of praise for his team. "I am still proud of this group of players - they have been wonderful, he said, before adding: "Dempo deserved the title for their sheer quality."

Ultimately, this quality proved enough to elevate Dempo to the top of the domestic podium for the third time in four years. Colaco, nonetheless, is already focused on adding to the club's trophy cabinet. The Goa outfit will face East Bengal on Wednesday in the Indian Super Cup, a fixture they failed to win in their two previous attempts in 2005 and 2007.

"They can party hard today and assemble tomorrow at the airport for another challenge," the tactician warned on Sunday. "The I-League was our top priority, but the Super Cup is one honour that is missing."