The I-league is seen as a springboard to throw up some of the country’s fresh, exciting talents to the fore. But the 16th edition hasn’t had much to offer, especially after the third round of matches.
The 2012-13 season had bucketful of surprises with some of the underdogs – Shillong Lajong and United Sikkim orchestrating unexpected victories over much fancied opponents. Shillong Lajong made the most of the home crowd advantage, humbling Mohun Bagan 2-0 in their league opener, while debutants United Sikkim made a dream start to their campaign, stunning Salgaocar 3-2.
That’s not all, Shillong Lajong later held Salgaocar to a 1-1 draw to ensure some of the fancied teams had a forgettable beginning to the I-league.
Besides the ‘surprise’ element, the tournament has been overshadowed by the firepower of the foreign players, especially those up front. Japanese attacking midfielder Ryuji Sueoka has been the man to watch out for defending champions Dempo – finding his scoring boots with increasing regularity. The 33-year-old, who turned out for Salgaocar last season, announced himself in the 16th I-League, netting a brace to seal the fate of Churchill Brothers, before finding his name on the score sheet in every game his side has played so far.
Nigerian Koko Sakibo, who had to fill in the massive shoes of invincible Ranty Martins, has also risen to the occasion and offered excellent support to Sueoka upfront, finding the target twice so far.
Besides Sueoka and Sakibo, we are also anticipating great things from former Arsenal player Rohan Ricketts in the upcoming games.
If Sueoka and Sakibo are doing the ‘goal scoring’ job for Dempo, their Goan rivals Churchill Brothers are hugely benefiting from the presence of Lebanese striker Akram Moghrabi and Brazilian Beto (Dempo captain), who has been leading by example.
Moghrabi, in particular, has been in stupendous form, firing a superb hat-trick against ONGC FC. Moghrabi is forming a goal scoring combo with Beto, who found the back of the opposition goal in every match for the Red Machines.
Another Goan side, Salgaocar has also seen their Philippines striker Angel Guirado come to the party. Guirado, whose signing was facilitated after the Goan club released Nigerian forward Hamza Amaba (who joined Vasco Sports Club), gave his side the lead against United Sikkim before the home side messed up their hopes. The six feet two inch tall striker once again put his side ahead against Shillong Lajong, scoring off a freekick before the Northeastern side restored parity.
Even the big-spending Prayag United has been riding on the prolific form of Ranty Martins. Martins slammed a fine hat-trick against Air India – the first of the tournament – to straight away assert his supremacy in the league. New Zealand’s Kayne Vincent is playing the support cast role admirably.
Former giants Mohun Bagan have been going through a torrid time, and are heavily banking on Odafa Okolie to bulge the net for them and he has obliged them with two strikes so far, while Australian Tolgay Ozbey is expected to unleash more firepower in later games.
Pune FC is also indebted to Japanese attacking medio Daisuke Nishiguchi, who has lent solidity to the team’s frontline.
Debutants United Sikkim are reaping the benefits of having Nigerian Nurudeen Salau in their ranks. Salau scored a crucial goal in Snow Lions’ upset win over Salgaocar before finding the target in a lost cause against Dempo.
Even Mumbai FC – one of the bottom-placed teams – are also counting on foreign firepower to keep their fortunes alive. Nigerian David Opara and Ghanaian old warhourse Yusif Yakubu (who wasn’t available from the beginning of the league, only arrived later), have been doing the goal-scoring duties for them.
The Nigerian duo of Ebi Sukore and Friday Gbeneme – both of whom earlier played for Mumbai FC – to some extent, have also justified their presence in the side, finding their scoring boots.
But the overwhelming dominance of foreign players begs one question: where are our Indian strikers? Sad to say, barring a few, there has been very little to write home about.
Pailan Arrows’ Holicharan Narzary has been one of the few bright sparks of the I-League. The 19-year-old Assam lad struck thrice to grab the eyeballs early on in the tournament.
Shillong Lajong’s 21-year-old Manipur midfielder Boithang Haokip is another one who has impressed, scoring one key goal in their stunning 2-0 win over Mohun Bagan.
Although these are early days, one hopes that the 16th I-League throws up talents who can serve the national team, and that the staging of the tournament is not reduced to a mere formality.