Young Brothers outlast their elders
Churchill Brothers Sports Club was founded under a devotion to youth. Yesterday, the seeds planted upon inception in 1988 bore the richest fruit native to Indian football: the I-League title.
A exhilarating, exhausting battle with Mohun Bagan, 99 years their senior and the country's oldest and most successful club, went down to the final day, with the teams starting play level on points. The Brothers, due to a significantly greater goal difference, effectively only needed victory at home to Mohammedan Sporting - a result that would relegate the visitors - and it was something they achieved emphatically, As it transpired, Bagan's 2-1 defeat at Mahindra United rendered the success irrelevant, but Churchill's 6-2 win certainly intensified the euphoria at the Fatorda Stadium.
Having suffered four near misses in the National Football League, which preceded the I-League, Churchill Brothers finally become domestic champions and earned the right to represent India in next year's AFC Champions League. Moreover, they ensured the trophy remained in Goa following Dempo's triumph in the competition's inaugural season.
I have been waiting for this cup from the start, for so many years," said the club's owner, Churchill Alemao. "The title came because of everybody's blessings and support. It is a big thing for Goa's pride that a family team is winning the I-League."
The conquest was indebted to two foreigners: Zoran Djordjevic, who moulded his players into a proficient, prolific unit to become the first overseas coach to win the Indian crown, and Nigerian Odafe Okolie. The explosive striker has scored with military regularity since joining Churchill Brothers in 2005, and if his side's seizure of the title was unforeseen going into the campaign, his own capture of a second successive leading marksman's award was broadly anticipated. Indeed, he had been on target 24 times - including six in a 9-1 defeat of Vasco - going into the concluding round, in which his double helped the Goan outfit make it 19 points from a possible 21 in the final straight.
"I was confident we would win today," said Okolie. "I was also confident that Mohun Bagan would lose. I want to dedicate this achievement to my new baby."
For Mohun Bagan, a season which involved Calcutta Football League and Federation Cup triumphs ended on a sour note at Mahindra United. "Anything would have been possible, but they came in full strength. We missed key players in central midfield and it was difficult," coach Karim Bencherifa said, explaining the defeat. "Congratulations to Churchill Brothers."
SC Goa finished third, level on points with Bagan, with Dempo 12 points further back in fourth. Vasco, who were long since relegated going into the concluding matchday, will be joined in the second flight by Mohammedan Sporting, one of India's biggest and oldest clubs, whose inability to upset Churchill Brothers spared Air-India relegation.
With Mohammedan falling through the trapdoor, East Bengal finishing a disappointing sixth and Mohun Bagan missing out on gold, the 2008/09 I-League proved a forgettable campaign for the three celebrated veterans of Kolkata. It was a season that belonged to youth and the self-proclaimed "family club of India": the 21-year-old Brothers had finally succeeding in usurping their grandfathers from the throne.