Super Cup 2018: Recent results show I-League teams may have overcome off-field disparity to match ISL's stature

As Indian football's first crossover tournament, the Super Cup gave I-League teams an opportunity to prove that they are capable of competing with richer and more glamorous Indian Super League (ISL) clubs. It's an opportunity these clubs have grabbed with both hands: five I-League teams are among the eight quarter-finalists, with at least two now guaranteed a spot in the semi-finals as well.

Fans of I-League clubs will no doubt be tempted into going overboard when drawing conclusions — they did so after a couple of victories over ISL sides in pre-season friendlies — but the Super Cup results deserve an objective look. It is not as straightforward as black and white — there were certain mitigating factors.

Neroca FC came back from 2-0 down to knock Kerala Blasters out of the Hero Super Cup. Image Courtesy: I-League

Neroca FC came back from 2-0 down to knock Kerala Blasters out of the Hero Super Cup. Image Courtesy: I-League

For starters, not all ISL clubs had warmed up to the idea of the Super Cup. It isn't hard to see why. The All India Football Federation (AIFF), football's governing body in India, announced the format of the tournament and its participating teams less than a month prior to the first qualifying round and only three weeks prior to the end of the two leagues — which several clubs had assumed to be the end point of their 2017/18 season.

Even the venue of the Super Cup hadn't been finalised at the time. It is difficult to take a competition seriously, or even plan well for it if it appears to have been put together haphazardly in the last minute.

"I cannot see the point of playing (in the Super Cup)," Steve Coppell, manager of Jamshedpur FC, had said after the tournament was announced. "I don't know the format of the tournament and we are two weeks away! I don't think it should be called a 'Super' Cup!"

Jamshedpur, though, are one of the three ISL teams in the quarters. Meanwhile, NorthEast United FC (NEUFC) manager Avram Grant wasn't impressed with the scheduling of the cup competition after the league, while Kerala Blasters manager David James stayed positive and termed it a "great idea".

Sure, there is a trophy up for grabs but, as Coppell pointed out, there is no AFC (Asian Confederation) slot for teams to fight for — India's two AFC slots had been given to the winners of the two leagues — and the prize money of Rs 25 lakh to be awarded to the Super Cup champions does not give "due importance" to the competition, according to Bengaluru FC CEO Parth Jindal. This year's ISL champions, Chennaiyin FC, received Rs 8 crore. Add to all this, the headache of extra costs even for I-League clubs.

"For the Super Cup, if you have one bad match, you’re out but you have to pay two months' salary to players," Minerva owner Ranjit Bajaj had told Goal.com prior to the tournament. Player contracts that expired at the end of the league season had to be extended and renegotiated.

Several players had planned vacations or wanted to return to their families. "Foreigners want to go home", a player agent revealed prior to the competition. Henrique Sereno, the captain of Chennaiyin FC, opted out of the competition because "he had been away from his family for a long time" as per Times Of India. Similarly, many other players were not bound by contractual obligations to participate in the tournament.

Meanwhile, I-League clubs were driven by a sense of pride in upstaging ISL teams. They were also used to playing in a cup competition — the Federation Cup — aside from the big league. I-League players also saw the tournament as an opportunity to put themselves in the ISL's shop window, which is far more lucrative, and they produced a string of outstanding results which, even taking into account the aforementioned mitigating factors, cannot be overlooked.

Six I-League teams have knocked out an ISL club thus far. Churchill Brothers, who had been relegated from I-League only one week prior to the Super Cup, set the tone on day one. The Goan club got the better of a Delhi Dynamos side that saw the Super Cup as a chance to redeem itself after an awful ISL campaign. Dynamos' director had felt "very bullish" about his team's chances of winning the trophy while Delhi's players, as per assistant coach Shakti Chauhan, "were raring to go".

Both teams had played with their full quota of foreigners — an important detail in Indian football since foreigners make all the difference, while Indians largely play a supporting role. I-League giant-killers Gokulam Kerala FC followed in Churchill's footsteps and knocked NEUFC out in the qualifier. Although NEUFC started with one foreigner less and added another later, the match had always been Gokulam's to lose — the Kerala side were the league's in-form team in the latter stages of the season and the better of the two teams.

Shillong Lajong FC and NEROCA FC, meanwhile, mounted sensational comebacks from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against much stronger opponents. Lajong have notoriously underperformed outside of familiar northeastern surroundings — the club's two away wins this season had come in Mizoram and Manipur and its away record reads five wins in 26 matches over the last three I-League seasons. But the Meghalaya team, the youngest in Super Cup's final stage, rallied to knock ISL semi-finalist FC Pune City out and achieved the feat with one foreigner less than the opposition, making it the most incredible result of the tournament.

NEROCA, on the other hand, beat a full-strength Kerala Blasters by scoring three goals in 12 second-half minutes — a remarkable achievement for a side that had scored three goals in a game only once all season. NEROCA's successful I-League season — one that saw the Manipur club finishing second on debut — was based entirely on its defensive strength (letting in 13 goals in 18 matches) rather than its attacking ability (averaging barely over a goal per match), which made the second-half burst against the Blasters an episode that nobody saw coming.

Finally, Aizawl FC, which beat ISL champions Chennaiyin FC on penalties, and East Bengal, which dumped Mumbai City out, complete the I-League's six-pack. Both Chennai (who played three foreigners) and Mumbai (two foreigners) were missing their foreign spine, which proved too large a handicap for these teams to overcome. All three of the I-League's northeastern clubs — Aizawl, Lajong and NEROCA — made it into the quarter-finals, while NEUFC, the sole northeast representative in ISL, faltered at the first hurdle.

There have been no free lunches for ISL teams in the 2018 Super Cup, apart from ATK's fairly easy 4-1 victory over Chennai City. Jamshedpur survived football's equivalent of two match points against I-League champions Minerva, while Gokulam gave Bengaluru a last-minute scare before conceding the winner. FC Goa, meanwhile, are yet to face an I-League opponent and Mumbai City, even with five foreigners, were only minutes away from being humbled by the Indian Arrows in the qualifier — a stellar effort by the developmental team comprising young Indian players.

There's little doubt that the ISL is India's go-to football league. Off the field, the gap remains wide — the finances, the scale of operation, the worth of stakeholders and the professional outlook of ISL dwarfs that of the I-League. On the field, though? The Super Cup has proven to be a battle of equals.

Akarsh Sharma is a business guy who spends much of his free time writing and researching on sport. His writing is collated on akarshsharma.com and he tweets @Akarsh_Official


Updated Date: Apr 11, 2018 14:42 PM

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