If a Premier League fan in India is asked about Indian football, most of them wouldn’t even bother answering. They struggle to name half the teams playing in India’s domestic league talking about the I-League here). While most people know about the Kolkata Giants, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, along with the new boys Bengaluru FC, they would hardly know who the most successful team in the I-League era is.At a time when Indian football is on the verge of a revolution, it is important to know the history of the clubs (most European football followers would agree) that were a part of it before it became famous. Here is a list of teams who were an ever-present influence in Indian football but are now stuck in mediocrity or lost in the history books.
#1 Kerala Police
Kerala Police were the pride and joy of the south-Indian state in the early 1990’s with superstars lining up in their starting eleven week in week out. Players such as IM Vijayan, VP Sathyan and CV Pappachan were exceptional players who could walk into any team in the country.
The team were able to lift the Federation Cup in 1991 and retain the title in 1992. Vijayan was named the Footballer of the year in 1993 while still playing for the Kerala side. By the time the National Football League came into existence, Vijayan had moved to Kolkata and age had started to catch up with the rest.
The club struggled to recreate the magic on the field as the millennium drew to a close and they were eventually disbanded in 2002. There was an attempt made to revive the club in 2012 but the team have not been able to reach the heights that were reached under the legends almost 25 years back.
#2 Jagatjit Cotton & Textile Mills FC
Jagatjit Cotton & Textile Mills FC or JCT, as they were commonly known were the ones who raised the standard of football in the northern state of Punjab. The team exceeded expectations when they ended up winning the first National Football League in 1997.
They were also the first Indian team outside Kolkata to win the IFA Shield in an era when the team for Punjab boasted of players like Baichung Bhutia, IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri. With all the big names moving to different clubs after the NFL win, the club began to falter as they started slipping into mediocrity with mid-table finishes.
In 2005, JCT signed a young player by the name of Sunil Chhetri who was influential in the team regaining some of their former glory. Even though they did not win the league, Chhetri was influential in guiding them to a second and third place finish in successive years, losing the I-League by just three points in 2007.
In 2011, the club disbanded citing the lack of interest of football in India but they recently announced their return to professional football. Whether or not JCT are able to reach the pinnacle of Indian football again remains to be seen but most people would be happy to see a north Indian team return to the big time so that football in the region receives a big boost.
#3 Churchill Brothers
Churchill Brothers have been one of the most successful teams in India since the start of the professional national league. They were title contenders in almost every season in the National Football League but always faltered at the final hurdle. They finished as runner-ups thrice in the old NFL. In the Goa Professional league, they were champions for six consecutive seasons during the same time.
When the I-League came into existence, Churchill, with Nigerian striker Odafe Okolie in their team started off as one of the favorites to win the inaugural I-League. Okolie score 22 goals in the 18 matches but as fate would have it they lost the league on goal difference to local rivals Dempo and it looked like the ‘chokers’ tag would be a part of their history.
Churchill, however, began the next campaign in style going unbeaten at home with Okolie scoring 24 times and Chimaokwu scoring another 10 as they won their first ever National title. They won three Durand Cups and two IFA Shields by 2013 and won another league title in 2013.
In 2014, Churchill won their first ever Federation Cup but ran into trouble just a few months later as they were axed from the I-League for failing to meet the licensing criteria set up by the AIFF. All football fans would love to see Churchill back in the top division as soon as possible because with them you can always expect a tough game.
Dempo are the most successful team in India since the beginning of professional football, having started their journey in the 2003-04 season where they finished second. In 2014, they signed a young Nigerian named Ranti Martins, a player who would end up scoring an incredible 147 goals in just 160 matches, in the process helping them win the old National Football League twice (2005 and 2007) and finishing second in the league on another occasion.
The Goan club won the inaugural I-League in 2008 as Martins spearheaded their attack and had won another two by 2012, one in 2009-10 and the other in 2011-12. With Martins leaving to play for United SC, Dempo finished fifth and fourth in the coming two season, but the biggest disaster was yet to come.
This season, the team struggled throughout the season, winning just 4 games during the campaign and ending up being relegated to the second division of the I-League. It would be a surprise if Dempo do not bounce back immediately, but they are in for a difficult time in the second division with many of their important players leaving to stay in the top division.
#5 Mohammedan SC
Mohammedan SC are one of the biggest names in Kolkata and even in India. Formed in 1891, they were the first all-Indian team to win the Calcutta Football League (CFL) and also hold the joint record of the most number of Calcutta Football League (CFL) titles, having won the competition five times in a row.
The club was home to India’s first football superstar Mohammed Salim, who played for Celtic in the 1930’s. The club have won the CFL 11 times which means they are behind only the two Kolkata Giants, the Rovers Cup six times, the IFA Shield six times and the Durand Cup twice, the most recent one being in 2013.
They played in the top division for a long time but never got close to winning a title. Sporting were relegated from the top division in 2009 and were able to gain promotion to the I-League in 2013 only to be relegated to the second division a year later.
At present, they play their football in the I-League second division but the future looks bright as they have been putting up some good performances recently. They beat both Bagan and East Bengal in last season’s CFL and looked good for the title but dropping seven points in the last four games meant that the wait for the CFL would be extended by another year.