Arata Izumi wants NEROCA FC to ‘enjoy the moment’

In early January, when players were securing lucrative deals with top I-League clubs, Japanese-born Indian midfielder Arata Izumi made a somewhat bewildering announcement – that he will be joining I-League second division new-comers, NEROCA FC.

Neroca players celebrate their win against Lonestar

The decision was not for the lack of suitors. After all, Izumi, a box-to-box midfielder with an eye for goal, was in the prime of his career. “It will be a great challenge for me because the club is like a dream (for everyone from the state of Manipur). They (the club) are trying to make things happen for the people the club represents. I like how they think about football. I like their attachment with the people,” he said, in a conversation with Sportstar then.

On Monday, NEROCA FC (short for North Eastern Re-Organising Cultural Association) clinched the I-League second division crown, beating Lonestar Kashmir FC 4-1 in Srinagar to become the first team from Manipur to reach the top flight of Indian football. For Izumi, it is a reward for his faith in a system that is fuelled by the football loving people of the North Eastern state.

“Individually for me, I’m happy that I could complete my job. But more than what I did or achieved, I’m really happy for the people of Manipur, the NEROCA players, coaching staff and the management. Their passion led us to this success, so I am really happy,” said Izumi in a telephonic conversation from New Delhi, where the team will be halting for the day before going to Imphal on Wednesday.

With talks going on about a possible football league makeover, it still remains a doubt whether the current I-League will be the country’s top division next season. But Izumi does not want to ponder about it, at least not now. “The management must be thinking about it but no one knows the future of Indian football at this moment. So we should just enjoy the moment. This is a fifty year old club (NEROCA was founded in 1965) and hence this a historic moment for the club and Manipur. The fact that the club won the title will give a lot of hope and motivation to the young people from the state,” he added.

In a season where Indian football managers have shown their ability to compete with the very best, Manipur-born Gift Raikhan’s success with NEROCA FC is the perfect sequel to Khalid Jamil’s success with Aizawl FC. Izumi, who knew Raikhan from their Pune FC days, says the coach’s man-management skills were crucial in the team’s title run.

“He (Raikhan) is learning of course. But if you ask (Antonio) Habas, he will also say he is learning. In fact, if someone says I know everything, I will say the coach is not good. The best part about him (Raikhan) is that he doesn’t have that ego. He is always talking with the players and we try to do everything together. His man-management skills are very good and is testimony to the quality of coaches these days,” said Izumi, who has also played under Jamil for Mumbai FC.

Izumi has been securing his coaching licences simultaneously, and will be applying for an ‘A’ license in the coming months. But the player wants to keep hitting the field and said his future at NEROCA will depend on many factors.

“I can’t really talk about my coaching future now but I want to keep playing for some more years. So it really depends on who takes me (laughs). That is how it is in professional football,” concluded the midfielder.

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FIFA U-17 World Cup: Minerva boys earn national team call-up

Norton

An impressive outing against the India Under-17 team has earned six Minerva Punjab FC academy players a call-up for the U-17 national side and a chance to impress newly-appointed coach Luis Norton de Martos ahead of the much awaited FIFA U-17 World Cup, which will be held in India between October 6-28.

Minerva, the AIFF U-16 Youth League champion, had played two matches against the national U-17 and U-15 sides in Goa, which the team won 1-0 and 2-0 respectively.

The performances by the Minerva team had impressed coach Norton, who took over the coaching duties from Nicolai Adam, and the management has now brought in Anwar Ali (defender), Amarjit Mishra (winger), Mohammed Shahjahan (midfielder), Ashem Henba (midfielder), Nongdamba Naorem (winger) and Jackson Singh (midfielder) to train with the U-17 team.

“Four of our players were selected from Minerva after we won the U-15 League. We are proud to be contributing 10 players to the U-17 team apart from the six who play for the U-15 team. A football club’s legacy isn’t about how many titles it has won. I’ve always maintained that the national team should be the ultimate aim. I want to proudly say one day that 10 players in the Indian side which qualified for the World Cup are from my team,” said an elated Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Minerva Punjab FC.

While the decision is bound to have pleased the Minerva management, it casts further doubts on how prepared the Indian team is ahead of the FIFA U-17 World Cup. After a decent showing in the 2016 AFC U-16 Championship, the Indian colts lost its momentum, and performed poorly in the 2016 U-17 BRICS Football Cup and the Granatkin Cup.

The success of the nation-wide scouting program, which was conducted to identify the U-17 players, is also being questioned after the Indian team’s loss against Minerva.

Former Indian captain Bhaichung Bhutia, one of the chief scouts along with Abhishek Yadav (former player) and sacked coach Nicolai Adam, was recently removed from the AIFF technical committee, adding fuel to rumours that he had shown favouritism while picking the players.

Interestingly, both Bhutia and Yadav have their own football academies but the ‘conflict of interests’ was not seen as a hindrance to the project by the AIFF management.

Yuta Kinowaki: Finding home away from home

yuta kino

Shillong Lajong has punched above its weight, so far, in the current I-League season. With seven rounds still to be played, the team, currently fifth in the points table, is level on points with defending champion Bengaluru FC.

One of the stars for the Shillong side has been its Japanese recruit, Yuta Kinowaki. The blonde-haired Asian has marshalled the midfield to great effect for the Thangboi Singto-coached team, while thwarting opposition attacks with ease.

“I enjoy playing in the central midfield. Though, I can play anywhere across the back-line, or as an attacking midfielder, my preferred position is in central midfield, where I can dictate things,” said Kinowaki in a tete-a-tete with Sportstar.

Yuta joined Lajong in the winter window, the latest stop in a nomadic football career that has seen the Japanese ply his trade at European leagues in Poland and Latvia.

“I was 22 when I moved to Poland to play for Energetyk Gryfino. A Japanese agent arranged for a trial in Poland and I passed it. But unfortunately due to some ‘paper issues’ I couldn’t play half of the season. The same agent then got me to Latvia where I played the entire season for BFC Daugavpils,” said the midfielder, who went on to play for Japanese club Kyto Shiko SC after an year in Latvia, before securing a move to Lajong’s North-East rival, Aizawl.

Like any modern day footballer, Yuta was lured by the promise of playing in the big Europeans leagues. “Yes, the idea was I will move to a club in Europe and one of the big leagues will find me,” said Kinowaki, who believes that he has settled well in India and now wants to build a career similar to his countryman and Mohun Bagan midfielder Katsumi Yusa.

“I was sceptical about coming to the country because I knew that would reduce my chances of playing in Europe,” said the 26-year-old. “But I’m happy and focused now. I want to improve as a footballer and win titles here. Katsumi Yusa is a role model for Asian players in the league. I want to be like him and stay for the long run.”

But with the future of the I-League still hanging in the balance, Yuta is keeping all his options alive. “We are footballers and ultimately we have to go where opportunity takes us. Like I said, I want to be here. But we don’t know what will happen to the I-League. So I have no idea what the future holds.”

The Japanese, though, has been impressed by the passion shown by Indians for football and feels the country is in the cusp of a football revolution. “It’s my second full season here and I can already feel a difference in quality. All India needs to do is maintain this effort. I have already heard of good academies popping up in places like Dimapur (Nagaland). Recently, I learned that the Mizoram government is sending a bunch of kids to Germany to learn from experts. These are all good signs,” said Yuta.

Shillong Lajong follows a strict policy of promoting home-grown, young players in the team, as highlighted by its recent match against Chennai City FC, when the coach fielded eight under-22 players in the starting line-up. Yuta, though young himself, has had to don the role of the experienced player in the side, something that he has done to great effect till date. The midfielder believes pressure is part of a professional footballer’s life, but prefers to enjoy the game and not think too much about it. “Every time you go out in the field there is the pressure of winning. I don’t think ‘I am the senior, the team depends on me’ when I go out to play. I just concentrate and work hard for the side.”

Lajong’s season so far has impressed Yuta, but the Japanese wants his team to remain focused till it achieves its target. “Our aim is to secure a top four slot. That was our aim when we started the season as well – to finish in a position better than what Lajong has achieved so far in its history of the I-League (best being sixth). So we need to continue to do the good work,” concluded Yuta.

IWL — A much-needed leap for women’s football

 

When All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced the launch of the first-ever Indian Women’s League to develop women’s football in the country, it was greeted with a sigh of relief along with the excitement.

After years of false promises and missing out on talented footballers due to lack of opportunities, the Indian football federation has finally put together a league for the eves, albeit a small, two-week tournament with all the matches played at the Dr.Ambedkar stadium in Delhi.

Indian women, despite occupying a respectable 54th place in the FIFA rankings and outperforming their male counterparts for years, had no regular league such as the I-League and Indian Super League for men, until now.

Their playing time was often limited to National championships and SAFF competitions, after which the onus was on the player to maintain the fitness required for playing at the top level. This forced many stars, including former AIFF player of the year (2013) Oinam Bembem Devi, who is the captain of Eastern Sporting Union in the IWL, to move out of the country in search of opportunities. Bembem, in 2014, joined New Radiant SC in Maldives — a country ranked lower than India — to become the first Indian woman to play for a professional foreign club. National team goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan shifted to London in 2015 and still plays for West Ham United.

It is not like there is a shortage of examples within the country to show how focused efforts for the women’s game can reap great benefits. Manipur has set the benchmark with women’s football by conducting intra-state competitions on a regular basis. The state has also won 17 Indian Women’s football Championship since the tournament’s inception in 1991-92.

Odisha is another state that has seen rapid progress in women’s football. The state football association, in partnership with SAI (Sports Authority of India), have been promoting the game and as result Odisha has become formidable force in the women’s game. The Kalinga stadium in Bhubaneswar and Barbati stadium in Cuttack are breeding grounds for women footballers in the country and have produced top-class players such as the 2016 AIFF women’s player of the year Sasmita Malik.

A SMALL YET SIGNIFICANT STEP

One can argue that the logic behind AIFF and IMG-Reliance’s decision to start the league is an attempt to cash in on the ever-growing popularity of the sport. After all, a two-week long league does not significantly increase the number of playing days for the women footballers. The organisers have failed to find a TV broadcaster for the event which will hamper its reach and appeal. No prize money has been announced for the winners either. Which all points to one big question — what was the need to start such a disorganised league in a hurry?

Yet, after repeated failed attempts to attract sponsors to kick-start a women’s league, the decision by AIFF to go ahead with the event, shows a real intention to improve the game. Perhaps the reason sponsors stayed away, despite the success of Indian Super League, was the lack of clarity in AIFF’s roadmap for the women’s game.

Now that AIFF has shown its intent, sponsorship and corporate interest will hopefully follow — something which will be essential to sustain the league in the long run.

A professional contract will also reduce, if not remove, players’ financial dependability on other jobs to sustain their lives. National team captain Ngangom Bala Devi is a police constable with the Manipur Police department and commitment such as these surely hinder a player’s growth.

The league, which will only feature Indian players, will also be a great platform for young footballers to make a mark at the top level. The average age of the Indian team that won the 2016 SAFF women’s championship was less than 25, which means the best is yet to come for most footballers in the team.

ONE STRIDE AT A TIME

During the inauguration ceremony for IWL, AIFF president said, “Our women’s team is ranked 54 in the world which is higher than the men’s ranking of 129 which means that for the upcoming FIFA women’s World Cup in 2019, if we put in the right effort our women’s team will have an outside chance of qualifying for the World Cup before the men.”

While the World Cup should be the holy grail for the Indian team, it is important that the women’s side takes it one step at a time and first aim to establish itself as a top-five team in Asia.  Indian women have dominated the South Asian region in the past years and is unbeaten in its last 19 matches but is currently ranked 12th in AFC (Asian Football Confederation).

[Ref: http://www.fifa.com/fifa-world-ranking/ranking-table/women/afc.html]

Five out of 24 slots in the 2015 FIFA women’s world cup went to AFC teams but to reach the top-five India must significantly improve its performances at the AFC Women’s  Asian Cup. Indian women haven’t qualified for the tournament since 2003 and the last time it went past the group stages was in 1983.

Japan, Australia, China and Jordan have been given automatic qualificiation for the 2018 edition after being the top three sides in the 2014 Women’s Asian Cup and the host respectively. India’s quest for a place in the other four slots will begin in April this year when it plays South Korea and Uzbekistan. Hong Kong and group-stage host North Korea are the other two teams in India’s pool.

It is AIFF’s responsibility to ensure the momentum gained by the IWL is utilised to go beyond the ‘big fish in a small pond’ mentality and ensure the women play more friendlies and tournaments against tougher ranked opposition.

The teams: FC Alakhpura (Haryana), Jeppiaar Institute of Technology FC (Puducherry), Aizawl FC (Mizoram), FC Pune City (Maharashtra), Rising Student Club (Odisha), Eastern Sporting Union (Manipur).

 

 

What Ballon Sur Bitume can teach Indian football

When I was presented the task of reviewing a documentary on French street football, the first question that popped up in my head was a resounding ‘why?’

Why was there a need to review a sports film in India? Especially by a publication like ours — we didn’t review Ronaldo, nor did we review Pele. We even overcame peer pressure and stayed away from Dangal.

Finding the context, therefore, became utmost priority, as I watched the film on Youtube.

Ballon Sur Bitume, which translates as concrete football, is a 50-minute documentary on the street football culture of France, packaged into modules of nostalgia, with the likes of Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez and PSG’s Serge Aurier, who have roots in Paris’ suburbs (Los banlieues), narrating their rags-to-riches stories.
While the film highlights the difficulties of growing up in the suburbs — lack of money is a common thread in every footballer’s recollection — it is anything but a fetishisation of poverty, because street football, to the Parisian suburbs, is a mode of expression. Just like graffiti art or rap music is. An immediate escape from the reality that cloud their lives. To be successful at it was to escape the clutches of poverty. It wasn’t just a game for the young Benatias and Mendys — it was their ticket to another life.

The film is, very loudly and clearly, the celebration of this freedom. Freedom of the few, who braved it out in the concretes, honed their skills under the tropical sun, to become world renowned footballers today.

To understand street football it is mandatory to understand the socio-economic backwardness of these suburbs. Many of its inhabitants are immigrants — Benatia is Moroccan, Aurier is from Ivory Coast, and Mahrez plays for Algeria — therefore, the game is an emotional outlet to a set of people struggling to find a home away from home.

Much like the Samba footballers from Brazil, the players who have roots in the Los banlieues have a distinct style – agility, quick feet, ball control, and most importantly a street spirit to win. Like Mahrez says in the film, these players are used to cut-throat pressure, having played in front of aggressive fans while growing up.

The film also delves into the relationship street football has with various with forms of music, dance, and fashion. Style is an element of street football, where restrictions and team rules go for a toss. If you are losing, lose in style. The idea to ALWAYS make a statement.

Interwoven with stunning shots and apt background music, the film on France’s street football is a cinematic experience on its own. The politics of the filmmakers are also quite clear — a ‘fly on the wall’ merely observing the happenings , with no God-like voice-overs influencing the story.

The film finds a special relevance in India or other countries where stifling alternate forms of expression, by tagging it anti-institutional/anti-society/anti-national, continue to be the norm. By criminalizing these counter-cultures, the country is merely cutting its own limbs of progress.

Take the example of Sevens football — a popular 7-a-side football game that is widely popular in North Kerala collectively called the Malabar. A place rich in history — from being one of the world’s first metropolitan cultures due to early century trades with the Arabs to being the first to strongly revolt against the British rule. The region, especially the district of Malappuram, is one of the socio-economically backward parts of Kerala.

There are multiple stories regarding the origins of the game yet the most popular theory involves the flora and fauna of Malappuram ( which means ‘on top of mountains’ in Malayalam). The mountainous terrain meant plains the size of a football ground were a premium. So every summer season, after the paddy was yielded, people would gather in the fields to celebrate the harvest by playing football in the rectangular plots (considerably smaller than traditional football fields) where seven-a-side seemed just about ideal.

The game’s popularity is also connected to the Gulf exodus in the 1970s, when people from the region went the Middle-East to make a fortune. When they came back, they brought back wealth, and lavishly spent it on football tournaments.

Yet this form of game, which has its roots deep into the culture of the land, has not been accepted by the official football bodies. Players are banned from playing the sevens game even at a time when Kerala’s football is at all-time low. Why? The reasons Kerala Football Association gives certainly don’t make sense– shorter fields will affect the player’s growth as a footballer, no system to take care of medical requirements etc. But they are talking as if 11s opportunities for footballers in the state are plenty when the truth is quite the opposite.

What if Brazil and France had opted the same stance? Would we have seen a Ronaldinho (the legend himself admitted how much Futsal influenced his game when he came to Chennai) or a Thierry Henry?  After an impressive debut season, Premier Futsal seems to have kicked the bucket after the AIFF went all guns blazing against it.

The successful countries identified the favelas and the streets as potential scouting grounds. Regions with similar socio-economic climate as most parts of India.

gally-cricket

Youngsters play cricket at dhobi ghat in Mumbai

In a time when efforts have been amplified to make India a multi-sporting nation, it is important to recognize the need for sports to become part of its identity. Just like cricket has. No country can succeed if it sees sports as an alien entity — something not borne from within its culture. With the 1983 World Cup, the advent of Doordarshan and the success of Sachin Tendulkar, India found an identity, a voice to shout at the world, in cricket. Today, kids play cricket in railway tracks and even in narrow lanes of slums. Yet more endemic sports such as Hockey, Kabaddi, or football lost the plot due to bad luck and mismanagement.

Why hasn’t USA men’s soccer reached top levels regardless of plush infrastructure, scholarships and state interest? The answer, as always, lies in the streets. In USA, kids take up basketball or baseball when they grow up. Like how football was a mode of expression for immigrants in France, basketball became closely intertwined with African-American empowerment. Football, or soccer as they call it, still remains something confined to training grounds and state-of-the-art gyms. As long as soccer stays away from the streets, the game will fail to attract the best athletes in the country, who are often hidden in the corners of these socio-economically backward suburbs.

While the India’s football association has been making commendable strides to improve the game, it has often come at the cost of cutting ties with traditional football cultures, be it in Goa or Kerala. Corporatization and professionalism are genuine needs for the game in India today, but as Ballon Sur Bitume shouts out, it should go hand-in-hand with history and existing cultural norms.

Interesting Reads:

  1. “Why America doesn’t like soccer, and how that can be changed”, TIME MAGAZINE, June 12, 2014
  2. “AIFF-FIFA show red card to Goa”, Rahul Bali, Goal.com
  3. “Why is Soccer Less Popular in the U.S.? By Kelsey Ontko, Julia Fogleman, and Lucas Nevola.

ISL Final: Five takeaways 

Here’s my pick of the stories that outlined the Hero ISL season three final:

1)      Squad Depth the key to ISL success

We saw it with Chennaiyin FC last season and we witnessed it again on Sunday with Atletico de Kolkata. When you are playing 16-odd matches in a span of 12 weeks, you need to have a good set of 15-16 players in your team. Kerala looked jaded – the side was playing its third game in seven days – and did remarkably well to even make a competition out of the encounter. But ultimately ATK had far too much fire-power in its ranks. Coach Jose Molina could afford to make as many as nine changes to his squad for the second semi-final and the freshness in the players was all too evident in the final.

2) Where are Kerala’s young guns?

That said, questions should be asked on why Steve Coppell insisted on playing with the same set of players throughout the season. One might argue it’s the case of team lacking enough quality, but by not giving the likes of Vinit Rai and Thongkosiem Hoakip enough opportunities to play, the team served against one of the biggest motives behind ISL – to improve Indian football.

Coach Molina on the other hand, while having a plethora of foreign talent to choose from, improved the Indian players under his wings. Jewel Raja looks a transformed player and along with Rowllin Borges can form a great defensive midfield duo to future Indian teams. The likes of Pritam Kotal, Prabhir Das and Didika have all looked completely transformed players in the recent weeks.

 3) 4-4-2 past its best

Again, in defence of Steve Coppell, he had the team given to him. But against ATK’s 4-2-3-1, Kerala’s 4-4-2 looked flat. With the Vineeth and Belfort (wingers) also tucking in to aid the defence, there was connection between the midfielders and the strikers. Nazon and Rafi were completely isolated and the extra line in ATK’ formation allowed Borja Fernandes and Jewel Raja enough freedom to start counter attacks. Coppell, at least after the 60th minute, should have been risky, and tried to mirror Kolkata’s formation. And its’ not like he didn’t have the right player to do it – a combination of Belfort, German, Vineeth and Nazon have the required trickery and pace to succeed in the formation.

4)  Iain Hume’s Kerala duck

Yes, his team finally won. But the Canadian striker still could not find a way to score against his former team, even missing a crucial penalty in the shoot-outs. ISL’s all-time scorer, according to coach Molina, volunteered to take the first penalty kick, but had his shot stopped by goalkeeper Graham Stack.  Hume’s versatility was something Molina used to good effect throughout the season though. In ATK’s previous match in Kochi, Molina pushed Hume to the left-wing and made Javi Lara play in the centre, which disrupted Kerala’s defensive balance and finally saw the Spaniard scoring the winner. The striker’s tireless running throughout the game was a pleasure to watch and it’s only a matter of time he gets one past his old team.

5)  Camus’ Hengbart

This was Cedric Hengbart’s third final in a long and winding career. In his first final (2005 Coupe de la Ligue final with SM Caen), his coach opted not to play him and his team lost. In ISL season one, he was injured and couldn’t play. Kerala Blasters lost that. And on Sunday, the Frenchman’s penalty miss proved costly as Jewel Raja went on to score his, and win the title for ATK. Even Albert Camus couldn’t have scripted anything more tragic. The Frenchman, along with CK Vineeth, were the best players for a Kerala team, that on roster, had one of the poorest squads in ISL. One can only hope, for football sake, that the defender will return next season, his drive to win the title still very much intact.

ISL final another Nehru Cup?

manjappada

There is an air of discomfort as one makes his way into Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the venue for the Indian Super League season three final between Kerala Blasters and Atletico de Kolkata. While on the exterior everything looks happy — barring the huge billboard in front of the stadium in which both C. K. Vineeth and Iain Hume are sporting frowns — the organisation of the mega-event has raised many eyebrows.

Thousands of Blasters faithful, people from across the world who haven’t missed a single home-game yet, are still queued up in front of the ticket-counter, even though there are signs stuck everywhere informing them that tickets have been sold-out.

“We heard that around 5000 tickets are yet to be sold. We don’t want to miss such a big football event,” said Nisar, who came to the city on Saturday from his native town in North Kerala. The optimism, though, is running thin and there is feeling that it might lead to an angry mob, as the match moves closer to the kick-off.

“Why were tickets given in 50s and 100s? Now we true fans, who didn’t back away even when the team was struggling last season, don’t have tickets while some rich VIP will flaunt a fake Blasters jersey for a selfie inside the stadium,” said an angry young man, who intruded the conversation with a security guard placed next to the VIP entrance.

While it is understandable that tickets cannot be sold beyond the stadium capacity of 60,000, one can only wonder why large screens haven’t been installed outside the stadium or across the city, to cater to the demand.

The atmosphere resembles that of the 1997 Nehru Cup semifinal played between India and Iraq. The security and organisers had failed to contain the crowd that night, in which it is believed, over a lakh people gushed in to see India’s penalty shoot-out loss against the eventual winner.

The frustration in not being able to procure tickets has hit everyone. Local newspaper Mathrubhumi reported that former Indian striker and Kerala’s pride I. M. Vijayan was offered only a general ticket for the event.

Amidst all this, reports have also emerged that two black-ticket sellers have been caught by police. Rs. 300 tickets are selling like hot cakes for Rs. 3000.

The entry into the stadium was opened at 3:30 p.m. and one can already see thousands of fans inside the stadium. Blasters’ fan group, the Manjappada (Yellow Army) has already taken up the East Stand. The infectious energy of the fans is keeping everyone optimistic for a really entertaining final.

ISL: ATK wins as Kerala stumbles in final yet again

It happened in that cold night in Munich in 2012, when Chelsea crawled back to win the Champions League against home-side Bayern Munich. It happened in Goa last ISL season when Chennaiyin FC ran away with the title. It happened again in Paris this year when host France lost to Portugal at EURO 2016. Now it has happened again in Kochi. Home team Kerala Blasters squandered a one-goal lead to lose to Atletico de Kolkata in penalties in the Hero Indian Super League season three final.

Kerala took the lead in the 38th minute when Kerala-born striker Mohammed Rafi nodded in a corner past the outstretched arms of ATK ‘keeper Debjit Majumder. But the lead only lasted seven minutes as ATK pulled one back through a thumping header by centre-back Henrique Sereno.

The match saw no more goals in regulation time or added time and was eventually decided on penalties. ATK keeper Majummder saved Kerala defender Hengbart’s penalty, the fifth one with scores level 3-3, with his feet, and in the subsequent penalty, Jewel Raja scored, to seal the title for ATK. This is the second time Saurav Ganguly-owned ATK has defeated Sachin Tendulkar’s Kerala Blasters.

Formations

Kerala manager opted to retain the core of the team that defeated Delhi Dynamos over two-legs. But semifinal hero Sandip Nandy was replaced by ex-Arsenal ‘keeper Graham stack – Coppell opting for the Englishman’s big match experience for the final. That meant Blasters would have one less foreigner in the team. Suspended left-back Josu was replaced, albeit quite strangely, by central midfielder Ishfaq Ahmed, who is also the team’s assistant coach. Duckens Nazon and Mohmmed Rafi headed the front line, while Kervens Belfort and C.K. Vineeth took-up position in the wings, in Coppell’s much preferred 4-4-1-1 formation.

Jewel Raja’s outstanding performance in the semifinal second leg against Mumbai City FC earned him a place along with Borja Fernandes in ATK’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Indian national team defender Arnab Mondal missed the match due to an injury with Tiri and Henrique Sereno forming the centre-back pairing. Canadian Hume partnered Postiga in the front for ATK with Sameehg Doutie and Lalrindika Ralte in the wings.

Summary

The Home-team started brightly, with Vineeth finding space in the right-wing after being played-in by Hengbart in the second minute of the match. But the winger’s cross fell in no-man’s land. Blasters had another crack at goal when Raja fouled Nazon near the box. But Mehtab’s distribution failed to meet any heads in the box.

Blasters created another great opportunity in the 10th minute when Belfort found space in the left-flank after a quick step-over. Rafi, who picked the pass from Belfort, delayed his shot slightly, which allowed Tiri to block the shot.

At the other end, ATK was begging to find its stride. In the 14th minute, Hume and Postiga exchanged passes, but the Portguese forward shot wide. The striker had another two shots at the goal, in the 21st and 22nd minutes, but failed to work ‘keeper Stack.

Kerala, playing without a proper left-back, was always going to find tough against the pace of Doutie and the South African almost created the first goal of the match, when his cross from right-wing narrowly missed Hume, who was rushing into the box.

Vineeth, who looked weighed down by the pressure of the match with some uncharacteristically poor touches, finally got into the act, when he cut-in from the right-flank to hit a curler with his left foot. Luckily, for ATK, it went straight to ‘keeper Majumder.

Blasters lost its captain Hughes to a groin-injury in the 35th minute.

The game’s opener came in the 38th minute, when Rafi climbed the highest to head to ball in from a Mehtab corner and make the crowd go berserk.

But the excitement was short-lived and ATK found an equalizer in the 44th minute. Like the host, ATK broke the defense through a corner – Portgueuse defender Sereno breaking free of his marker, Jhingan, to thump in a header. The first half ended in parity.

Both teams started the second-half cautiously, happy to sit back and wait for the opposition to make the mistake. Nazon had a shot saved in the 64th minute while Postiga drew an acrobatic save out of Stack in the 66th minute. Coach Molina withdrew the Portuguese striker in the 67th minute to bring-in creative midfielder Javi Lara, who scored the winner against Kerala when the teams last met in Kochi.

Kerala brought in semi-final hero Mohammed Rafique and Antonio German to spice up the attack. Vineeth moved to his favoured secondary striker role while Rafique took up the right wing.

The substitutions did not yield any results for both the sides though as the match moved into the extra-time.

With the teams looking jaded, this was afterall their third match in a week’s time, the extra-time played with extra-caution. Touches were going wrong, tackles were coming in late and set-pieces were missing their targets as the wear and tear of the grueling season suddenly started showing on the players. Kerala’s Ishfaq Ahmed and Jhingan received yellow cards in an otherwise un-eventful first period of added time.

The second session offered much the same – a 110th minute effort from Ralte forcing some desperate defending from the Kerala back-line. Kerala had its chance when Belfort broke free in the left. But his shot was blocked by the rushing ATK defenders.

Kerala started the penalty shoot-out with German and the Englishman send the ATK keeper the wrong way to give Blasters the lead. Iain Hume missed ATK’s penalty to give Kerala the advantage. Belfort and Doutie converted their kicks before Blasters’ N’Doye struck one over the post. Borja equalized the scores with his penalty after which Rafique and Lara converted theirs. In the last kick, Mazumdar saved Hengbart and Raja converted his, to clinch ATK the title.

Rohit Ramesh: Chennai City will open up chances for local talent

Rohit Ramesh, owner of I-League new-entrant Chennai City FC, on Sunday confirmed that his team will be looking to open up opportunities to budding footballers in the state.

“If you look at players such as Dhanpal Ganesh or Dharmaraj Raavanan, they had to move out of the state to get opportunities to play in top-tier football. We hope to change that pattern and offer budding footballers a chance to grow-up within the state,” said Ramesh to Sportstar.

Read: Chennai City, Minerva Punjab get AIFF nod

With I-League only a month away, the team will have its work cut out, as it looks to form a balanced side capable of fighting it out in the national-level tournament. “Yes, we will have to work hard. We are already in talks with a few players. You can expect announcements in the coming week. We will be striving to form a well-balanced team with footballers from Tamil Nadu and abroad,” said Ramesh.

ALSO READ: Tamil Nadu football legends welcome new I-League club

The owners took over the Chennai club three years ago and the team has had a steady presence in the Chennai senior division league, winning it in the 2015-16 season. “There is not much gap in terms of quality,” said Ramesh, when quizzed about the difference in Chennai senior division and the I-League. “We have a good side already and we will be looking to improve it. We want to co-exist. We will be investing and fielding teams in football tournaments within the state, while also playing in the I-League.”

The AIFF has a proposed a new league merger, with the I-League to play second fiddle to Indian Super League, but Chennai City owner rejected ideas of any possible partnership with the ISL team from the city. “We are not looking to have a tie-up with Chennaiyin FC as of now. We would like function independently to promote the game in the region,” said Ramesh.

Bengaluru FC has set the bench-mark with club management ever since its inception in 2013, going on two win two I-League titles and reaching the AFC Cup finals. But, Ramesh confirmed that his club will approach the league in a different way. “We look at Bengaluru FC with great respect, but we will have our own model of operation,” said Ramesh.

Though not yet been given a confirmation, Chennai City FC is expected to be free from relegation in the first three seasons in the top-division. The club, which already has academies in Thoothoor (Kanyakumari) and Meenambakkam (Chennai), plans to start another in Madras Christian College, Chennai. The owner also confirmed that the team has culled its partnership with Premier Futsal club Chennai 5s.

Tamil Nadu football legends welcome new I-League club

Former Indian football stars from Tamil Nadu, Raman Vijayan and Syed Sabir Pasha, said Chennai City FC’s entry into the I-League will be a big boost for upcoming footballers from the state.

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“In the past, only players from Kolkata or Goa used to be recognised and it was difficult for others. Now the young players have clubs from within the state. Already, Chennaiyin FC has made a big impact in bringing together the fans. Now both the clubs can play a key role in bringing up players from the state. It is a big task for Chennai City now to conduct the club in a good way and sustain this momentum because entire Tamil Nadu will be watching them,” said former Indian national team striker Raman Vijayan.

Syed Sabir Pasha, who is currently the assistant coach of ISL club Chennaiyin FC, and who, like Vijayan, came into the limelight through his performances for Indian Bank, the last team from Tamil Nadu to play in the National Football League, echoed the same views.

“More the clubs, more the opportunities for the players from the state,” he said. “This is exactly what happened when Indian Bank had a team in top division. It gave local players a good opportunity. Hopefully Chennai City FC can do the same.

Bengaluru FC (BFC), a corporate funded team founded in 2013, has become the benchmark when it comes to professionalism in football in the country after winning two I-League titles, and Vijayan, wants Chennai City FC to replicate something similar in Chennai.

“The team needs to be result oriented but at the same time build the club with a strong foundation, like BFC. Chennai fans are already there but you need to attract them to your matches through performances. It is important to have a strong core team who can survive for another 10-15 years. Like how BFC came up with this entire club structure, Chennai City should also have a long-term vision and bring professionalism into the game,” said Vijayan.

“A professional set-up is very important because now the players have already experienced that in the ISL. So clubs should ensure that players maintain that high standards when it comes to training, diet etc,” added Vijayan, who is the assistant manager for ISL club Delhi Dynamos.

Vijayan also said that finding the right balance of youth and experience will be the key for Chennai City FC’s success in the long run.

“It is important to have the right balance in the team — some local talent and some foreign players. The club should have a proper scouting program and ensure that it matches up to the big clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. The balance will come automatically in one or two years if you have a proper youth set-up with a pool of players.”

Sabir Pasha, who also heads Chennaiyin FC’s grassroots programs in the state, stressed that on-field success should be the priority for the I-League’s new entrant.

“It’s not going to be easy to go into a big league where all the teams are established. Their first priority should be on making the team competitive. Once they get into the I-League, they will have to field teams in Under-15, U-19 and all the other youth leagues. It is about establishing in the top level. Everything else will follow,” said Pasha.

Pasha believes that promising footballers are scattered across Tamil Nadu but the presence of CFA football league, Chennai City FC ( in the I-League) and Chennaiyin FC ( in ISL) will bring them to the capital city. With team owner Rohit Ramesh confirming that Chennai City FC will continue to play in tournaments within the state, the city now has a set-up where the youngsters can first sharpen their skills in the CFA, before moving to top leagues such as I-League and ISL.

Vijayan, the only other Indian apart from Baichung Bhutia to be the top scorer in National Football League (1997-98 season with FC Kochin), said such a structure, would play a key role in bringing local talent into the limelight.

“When Chennaiyin FC started, there were no players from the state and it faced a lot of criticism for it. But if we don’t have I-League clubs, from where will they find quality players? Now there is a big platform for players from the region and I’m sure you will start seeing more local talent play in the ISL,” he said.