I-League: 10 years, 10 memories
The I-League completes 10 years today -- the first match of the erstwhile National Football League (NFL) was played on November 24, 2007 in Margao between reigning champions Dempo and Salgaocar, with Dempo winning 3-0. ESPN's writers who have covered the league over these years pick 10 memories of matches or moments that they witnessed first-hand.
Odafa's day out - Debayan Sen
Jan 2008, Margao
It was the first season of the I-League, and Churchill Brothers were hosting Mahindra United. Churchill's Nigerian striker Odafa Okolie scored inside the first minute, and Mahindra equalised just after half time. Odafa then scored a second to pull Churchill ahead, but Steven Dias equalised inside two minutes. Odafa got his hat-trick almost immediately after the restart, and added a fourth late in the game. More than the four goals, it was the quality of Odafa's finishing that stood out, mixing power with deft touches and feints, the highlight of a terrific display of attacking football from two quality teams.
Churchill's agony, Dempo's joy - DS
February 2008, Margao/Kozhikode
Churchill, the eternal NFL bridesmaids pipped at the post three times, headed into the final day of the first I-League facing Air India at home, tied on points with Dempo (away to Viva Kerala) but four goals behind on goal difference.
Churchill did their bit, getting an early goal, but Dempo were 2-0 up inside 31 minutes. Viva Kerala raised Churchill hopes by pulling one back four minutes later, but Dempo eventually won 4-1, while Air India resisted Churchill Brothers enough to keep the margin of defeat down to 3-0. The crown had eluded coach Karim Bencherifa's team yet again, though Odafa won the Golden Boot for his 22 goals.
Mumbai's opening burst - DS
September 2008, Kolkata
Mumbai FC burst on to their debut I-League season with three wins on the trot against former champions in their first three matches in India's top-flight. Two of those wins came against Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, the former on I-League debut at the Barasat Stadium. Mumbai -- tight in defence, industrious in the middle and clinical up front -- beat Bagan 2-1, and followed it up with 1-0 wins over East Bengal and Mahindra United. For all their promise, they finished seventh in the 12-team league.
Zoran and Churchill make history - DS
April 2009, Margao
Churchill Brothers won the league for the first time by beating Mohammedan Sporting 6-2 at home. It was also the first league title won by a foreign coach, and Serbia's Zoran Djordjevic celebrated in style. He went into the change room with his team 2-0 up at half-time and came out a little after the re-start, the Serbian flag draped over his shoulders. While the match was on, he set off on a victory lap around the technical area and behind either goal, and shed copious tears. The club's owners, the Alemao family, burst through the gates of the Nehru Stadium at full-time. Oddly, this was Djordjevic's solitary campaign in Indian football.
A revenge 34 years in the making - DS
October 2009, Kolkata
It was a manic 90 minutes at the Salt Lake Stadium. Nirmal Chettri set the ball rolling with a bullet-header for East Bengal in the first half, Bagan came back with three quick goals, before Yusif Yakubu pounced on a couple of defensive errors to take the teams to half-time at 3-3, with coaches Subhas Bhowmick of East Bengal and Bagan's Bencherifa pumping fists and egging on a 100,000-strong crowd. Bagan scored two decisive blows in the second half, which was played at just the same intensity, and Chidi Edeh became the first and thus far only footballer to have scored four in the derby. It wasn't quite 5-0, the infamous scoreline in East Bengal's favour from the 1975 IFA Shield final, but the Bagan fans felt some closure.
Tough love and life lessons for Lajong - DS
January 2010, Mumbai
Shillong Lajong joined the 2009-10 I-League as the first team from the north-east, and found it tough to adapt to conditions across India. Their first away match in the new year took them to Mumbai -- the first time there for many of the young players. It showed in their on-field performance, beaten 5-0 as Mahindra tore them to shreds with some rapid pace along the wings.
Chhetri and the southern upstarts - Arjun Namboothiri
April 2014, Margao
The league title was on the line as Bengaluru, in their debut season, faced Dempo, five times national champions. There was plenty of buzz -- the travelling Bengaluru fans outnumbered the locals -- and the press box at the Fatorda had journalists from Kerala and even Kolkata. Bengaluru scored two minutes in, via Sean Rooney, and East Bengal's chances began to fritter away. With 11 minutes to go, BFC were 3-0 up but then Dempo scored two. Even as journalists were making their calculations, Sunil Chhetri scored Bengaluru's fourth and they were champions of India. Cue party, Bengaluru style in Goa.
Wonderful Wahingdoh - AN
April 2015, Bengaluru
Royal Wahingdoh of Shillong played only one I-League season, in 2014-15, but their exuberant, attacking football sticks on in the memory. They put three past Mohun Bagan and Dempo, four past Salgaocar and two past East Bengal as they rose to title contention. But the match that defined their football was against reigning champions Bengaluru. Wahingdoh scored in 15 minutes, BFC equalised in the 39th. Wahingdoh regained the lead on the 44th, and BFC shot back in the 58th. BFC took the lead in the 70th and Wahingdoh hit back in the 74th. There were 43 shots on goal, 26 of them by the visitors, for whom Jackichand Singh ran rings around the BFC defence. Simply put, the best I-League game I have ever seen.
A drought ends in the Bengaluru rain - DS
May 2015, Bengaluru
Defending champions Bengaluru FC headed into the last game of the season at home needing a win against Mohun Bagan, who needed a draw to win their first league since 2002. John Johnson headed Bengaluru ahead on a rain-soaked Kanteerava pitch but Bagan pulled one back three minutes from time -- another defender, Bello Rasaq, heading in from a corner. Sunil Chhetri was brought on to try and push for the winner but Bagan held on, with the rain getting heavier as the match ended.
The longest two minutes at the end of the earth - Sharda Ugra
April 2017, Shillong
Aizawl FC were within touching distance of winning India's national league -- they needed a draw in their last match -- but were in danger of being pole-axed by Shillong Lajong, playing their best football of the season. At 1-1, with four minutes of stoppage time, it felt perilous because everyone was on edge -- Aizawl's composed defence, their travelling fans with a clear sight of goal, and every neutral, who felt the script needed to be written. Lajong's Dipanda Dicka missed twice in the space of two minutes when in clear space. The quietest, most composed journalist in our press box, bespectacled, well-groomed, without a hair out of place or a quiver of emotion in voice or face, suddenly jumped to his feet and shouted, "For f***s sakes, COME ON, ENOUGH, finish it, stop it!"
Eventually, the longest two minutes in the world did end. The score stayed 1-1, Aizawl had won the I-League, their fans began to invade the ground. I'd seen Aizawl beat Bagan at home a week ago and a friend said, "Your first two I-League matches and you get this atmosphere? Two games in a row?" Me lucky so-and-so.