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.


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.


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).




Perks of watching Sevilla v Real Madrid on a slow internet connection

Contrary to popular perceptions, change is not the only thing permanent on planet Earth. If history is anything to go by, and I’ve been hearing a lot about it around the city due to the Jallikattu ban, human beings have been frustrated since time immemorial.

Back in the stone ages we were upset about not gathering enough food while today we face the challenges and emotional trauma of bad internet connections. On Sunday night, an over-sized football fan (read – me), braved post-operative instructions, and dived into the deep waters of the internet to find a free steaming link for Real Madrid’s trip to Sevilla

Beneath penis enlargement programs and lonely neighbourhood women, I did find a working link but alas, my internet connection was too damn slow to buffer the match seamlessly. I decided to brave it out because, you see, Real Madrid, a team I dislike unless it is playing Barcelona, was on a historic run (40 games unbeaten) and Sevilla, a team I have a good rapport with having managed it for years in FIFA and PES, had recently held the Los Blancos to an entertaining 3-3 draw.

Tactically, it had all the billings of a cracker. And the starting line-up confirmed it. Real Madrid, clearly worried about the previous encounter, chose for a cautious 3-5-2 approach (yes the same formation Italy and Wales used in EURO 2016), with Marcelo and Carvajal acting as wing-backs. This was a team, unbeaten since Donald Trump became a household name, changing its normal shape ( a 4-3-3) because it was vary of the opposition. If there’s anything such as a mental high, Jorge Sampaoli would have certainly felt it seeing the starting line-up. That is, unless, he was distracted by Sergio Ramos’ respect for his balls.


Good thing about being in the 21st century is that for every frustration there is a hyper orientalized English movie to calm you down. So I channeled my inner Master Shifu and found a fun way to kill my time during the buffer breaks — screenshots and analysis. I ended up taking way more than I should have in a dull 2-1 victory for Sevilla but I’m going to use some to explain some key points, which according to me, were the highlights of the game.


One thing that did not change was how Sampaoli approached the game. This Sevilla side works on pressing hard and then attacking through the flanks, something which Zidane had hoped to stifle with the change of formation.

The wing-backs, with the aid of the two midfielders in the respective side, were able to halt Sevilla’s progress through the flanks. The ever-lively Vitolo and Nasri were taken out of the game as shown by the screenshots below.


Carvajal, Modric and Casemiro form a triangle to prevent Sevilla’s attack through the left flank.

Even when the wingers cut inside, Sevilla opted not to switch flanks, where it had a numerical advantage, and instead opted for the safer pass back to either N’Zonzi or Iborra in the central midfield.


Madrid’s central midfielders hunt down the players trying to cut in

Zidane was winning the battle of pressing in the  defensive half, but Madrid’s lack of man in the attacking half meant all Sevilla players needed to do was keep their heads still.

Madrid’s lack of adventure and Sevilla’s discipline meant a dead spectacle for the fans. The Los Blancos were terribly direct and super slow in their counter attacks, almost hoping Sevilla will make a mistake. Which it did in a rush-of-blood-to-the-head moment and conceded a penalty for Ronaldo to score.

Not so surprisingly, for both teams, it was the counter pressing, bombarding full-backs pressing high in the opposition half, which opened up up chances for both teams.

This 21st minute pressing from Marcelo finally forcing the keeper to kick the ball outside play.

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Sevilla’s goal also came via counter pressing though the strategy was deployed only because there was just a few minutes remaining and Real Madrid was already looking happy with the point.

Sevilla outnumbered Real in a throw and launched a scathing attack on the left to feed Jovetic who curled past the outstretched arms of Navas to win the game for his team and end Real’s dream run.




If you have been following my blog (please say yes) you will all know how much I love Leonardo Bonucci. He is the epitome of ball-playing central defenders who have come to dominate football today so when I say Sergio Ramos might be better, I mean it.

Let me get this straight. I’m not a fan of the chap otherwise and would like him to be on the losing side always (for some weird reason). Yet, Ramos is everything a central defender should be (kudos to Mourinho who moved him from RB to CB) — fast, brilliant in the air, and exceptional tackling. Yet, that’s just 30% of his overall abilities. The defender is an attacking threat from all the set pieces and has a knack of producing the goals when its needed. Unfortunately he scored in the wrong end against Sevilla

Zidane used Ramos as a ‘libero’ or a sweeper in the match (read my piece on David Luiz to know more about the role). His was the starting point of most attacks for Madrid, spraying balls to wingers, while also preventing Sevilla to control the second third of Real Madrid’s half.


Here’s heatmap proof (via whoscored) of Ramos’ dominance in the region. Certainly an option for Zidane to try in important matches (maybe even an El Clasico).


We (yes me included) have a tendency to hype things, especially when there is an upset involved. A lot of publications I generally read called Sevilla’s victory as a tactical masterclass. I didn’t think it really was. It was at best an ordinary match, two sides with too much respect for each other, playing a waiting game. I’m not denying that requires great patience and team-work, but it never looked like Jorge Sampaoli had unearthed some master plan to beat Madrid — the team was simply better drilled and focused.

Real Madrid will easily recover from the victory, but Zidane’s maturity as a tactician was questioned in the match. What was the need to leave a successful 4-3-3 ? Ronaldo and Benzema missed chances to finish off the game and extra presence in the attacking half might have sealed the victory for the travelling side.


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.


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.

Sasmita Malik — winging her way to glory

Away from the hullabaloo of league mergers and world rankings, an Indian team is slowly, yet efficiently, etching a name for itself in the world of football. The Indian women’s football team, helmed by coach Sajid Dar, has reached yet another SAFF women’s championship final — a tournament it has completely dominated, winning all three previous editions.

One of India’s shining stars in the tournament so far has been Sasmita Malik. The 27-year-old winger’s pace and trickery on the left flank has been a constant threat to the rival defenders. She has already scored two goals in the competition.

Sasmita, a product of the Bhubaneswar Sports Hostel, has been a part of the senior National team since 2007, when she made her debut against Iran.

Sasmita Malik (right) of India flits past Anita Basnet of Nepal in the final of the South Asian Games in February last year. At the SAFF Championship, Sasmita has been the pick of the Indian players.   –M. Moorthy

“I was always interested in football. I never bothered to venture into another game. I got my admission in the (Bhubaneswar Sports) hostel through athletics, but my coach told me to concentrate on football and try to make it to the National team,” said Sasmita, about her entry into football.

Born in Aloha, a small village in Kendrapara district of Odisha, Sasmita’s journey to becoming the AIFF Player of the Year in 2016 was anything but easy. “When I was in Standard IV, there was an all India football tournament in our village, which I had gone to see with my father. I saw people running around and kicking the ball, so I thought to myself, ‘I can also do that’. I asked my father if I could, and he readily agreed,” recollected Sasmita.

“Then, we heard an announcement saying that chairman Devendra Sharma (now MLA) wants to provide necessary kit to anyone who wants to pursue football or cricket. I enrolled but when we got home, my relatives were upset. ‘Girls don’t go to play’, they said, and even though my father supported me, since it was a joint family, there were a lot of relatives who strongly objected.

“Thankfully, my brother, who was staying away from the family to pursue his studies, came back to our village and informed everyone that a lot of women play the game these days. He insisted that I should be given a chance,” she added.

READ: ‘We need to play more tournaments,’ says Bembem Devi

Much of the effort that has gone into improving the game in the country recently, such as the introduction of the Indian Super League, has been for men’s football. In the absence of a proper league, most women footballers, including players such as Bala Devi and Aditi Chauhan, were forced to go abroad for regular playing opportunities. However, Sasmita, who has now completed a decade with the senior team, is happy with the All India Football Federation’s roadmap for the sport.

“We have a league starting at the end of January. That will be great for all of us. You can see that the AIFF is doing everything in its capacity to improve the game, as a result of which, there are players popping up from all parts of the country. Slowly we will start reaping the benefits of the league,” said Sasmita, who is the second player from Odisha — after Shradhanjali Samantray — to have captained the Indian team.

“There is a feeling in this country that we can achieve something at the world level. You can see that the National Championships have become really competitive. Everyone is more focused and professional,” said Sasmita.

India overcame Nepal, a strong favourite to win the tournament, 3-1 in the semifinals to set up a clash with Bangladesh in the final, to be played at the Kanchenjunga Stadium in Siliguri. Even though the Blues struggled to break the Bangla defence in the group stages, Sasmita is confident of a more positive result on Wednesday.

“We dominated the match against Bangladesh and were quite unlucky not to win. Its defence was blocking everything that came its way, with the ’keeper also in fine form. Football can be like that some days. But coach Dar, who has been phenomenal in binding the team together, has given us specific instructions, and we will go into the final quietly confident that we can win,” Sasmita concluded.

Chinese Super League: Trouble for football’s big boys or added insurance?

Oscar’s double thumbs-up in Shanghai SIPG jersey is not going to go down in the history books as one of ‘those’ sensational transfers. It certainly did not have a manager kicking a boot on to the player’s face nor did it involve an astronomical sum at the end of a bidding war.


Yet, the Brazilian playmaker’s 60 million move to China could be the beginning of the end of Europe’s tag as footballer’s dream destination. With Chinese Super League announcing its intention to become one of world’s best leagues by signing some of World’s coveted talents, Europe now faces stiff competition for football stars — especially from continents such as South America and Asia.

The signs were already there. Last season, the Asian football markets saw records being shattered with the arrivals of Jackson Martinez (Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Hebei China Fortune), Ramires (Jiangsu Suning) and Alex Teixeira (Jiangsu Suning). These were players who were in the peak of their career unlike a Didier Drogba or Nicolas Anelka who took the Asian route for one last fat pay cheque before they hang their boots up. Europe didn’t mind the Drogbas and Anelkas moving because it was helping them clear out players on the decline without upsetting the fans who don’t like it when their heroes aren’t offered contract extensions. But Jaingsu secured services of 25-year-old Teixeria by outbidding Liverpool — a team with a rich pedigree in Europe. Oscar was, until very recently, a primary target for Serie A champion Juventus. Suddenly, to people’s dismay, the Chinese were taking away Europe’s primary targets.

Shattering the football cycle

China’s financial power, aided by President Xi Jingping’s 50-point plan for football domination, in due course, will bring to end the traditional cycle of football economy. To understand how this works, lets break down the cycle into four parts. Of course, no club is completely reliant on one particular system and having a youth team is mandatory for long-term success, but we will stick to this simplistic structure to get an idea of what China can do to football.

There are 4 types of clubs:

1. The Home-grown: Clubs such as Spain’s Athletic Bilbao and England’s Southampton have always relied on identifying talent at a very young age and nurturing them to become top-class footballers. Their success lies two in factors – 1) continuous supply of young, quality footballers and 2) big clubs buying their stars for a high sum.

2. The scouts: Some clubs may not have a bright academy but they make up for it by scouting talent from across the world. They take the gamble with young players from their own league or other countries by giving them regular playing time. For the players, the clubs are guaranteed spotlights. If they perform well, the big guns will come looking. For the clubs, if the gamble pays of its a lot of profit.

3. Title chasers: The demands of a cup every single seasons means most of these clubs like to buy proven talent. They tend to buy from clubs in established leagues rather than taking a risk by signing them young.

4. The final-bow: The Major League Soccer (MLS) or the Indian Super League (ISL) are primary example of leagues where the players go to after their peaks for one last pay cheque. There is money and the football isn’t too demanding. The clubs in turn make the most out the players’ marketability through jersey and ticket sales.


What Chinese clubs have done, much to the unhappiness of Europe, is that they have entered in the ‘title-chasers’ category and not ‘final bow’. Suddenly, the home grown clubs and the scouts have alternative option to sell, which in turn will give them leverage during a negotiation. Liverpool desperately wanted Teixeira, but Shakhtar Donetsk, would not fudge until the Reds matched the Chinese bid. Moreover, the money going into these relatively smaller clubs, will allow them to fend off approaches from top clubs.

The EPL, buoyed by a new TV rights deal, is an example of how money can level the playing field. A traditional buyer such as Chelsea or Manchester City will struggle to sign a player from Southampton today because the money the Saints are getting from the deal (which is close to what top clubs from other European clubs make). This in turn prevents the top clubs’ ability to buy off competition.

If Chinese Super League continues its trend, and one would assume that will be the case, then the likes Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, and Borussia Dortmund will have the financial security to say no to approaches from teams in the same league.

That said, the Chinese market also acts as an added insurance for the big clubs who are bound by the financial fair play (FFP) regulations. Take the case of Oscar. Chelsea bought the Brazilian from Internacional for his potential. Though he didn’t exactly flop, he never rose to the Neymar levels that were expected and was only a bench-warmer in Antonio Conte’s new look Chelsea. In short, it was a gamble that didn’t pay off for Chelsea. That is, until CSL took him in and handed Chelsea a whopping 40 million profit.

The big clubs now have the safety of not losing money on risky moves which will push them to scout talents rather than rely on other scouting clubs. If Gabriel Jesus turns out to be a flop at Manchester City, it won’t worry the City owners too much. There is the CSL who would love to get a young player of his quality. Acquiring players from big clubs is good for China too. Oscar still has the best part of his career ahead of him and is more marketable than a player bought from Shakhtar because of Chelsea’s fan base.

This will disrupt the functioning of traditional scouting clubs who will have the likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea breathing down their necks.

China is using the same method that saw its rapid rise in industrial sectors — acquiring foreign companies (clubs) and talent (in this case footballers) to improve its own. Atletico Madrid is partly owned by Chinese Billionare Wang Jianlin while Manchester City in 2015 announced a 265 million pounds deal with Chinese investors. With President Xi’s dream of turning China into a ‘soccer powerhouse’ very much a priority, rich offers from the oriental east will not be on a shortage (at least for the immediate future).

Chinese Football League promises to shake up the existing the financial system in football and throw open a plethora of opportunities (and difficulties) to clubs in Europe. Only one thing is missing in China’s top league today — the presence of a European football star.

But with the summer of 2017, this could change, with both Wayne Rooney and John Terry being eyed up. Will they open the flood-gates (and thereby change the power structure in football forever) by moving to China? Only time will tell.

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?


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.


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.


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.


“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.