The last time a north Indian football club won the league, Churchill Brothers had a part to play in the story. That day, JCT Phagwara took to the field in a final day clash against Dempo in Goa. Their fate was out of their own hands. Regardless of whether they won or not, Churchill needed to drop points to hand them the title. And they did.
Today, as before, Churchill will be at the centre of the storm, as Minerva Punjab FC look to create history and upend the footballing order for the second season in a row—the pioneers of the underdog story after all are Aizawl FC. In a twist, though, Minerva hold all the cards today. A win will give them the title, and hand Churchill relegation. Any other result and things get more complicated.
But then, today is that rare kind of day, when one of many things could happen. In common course, two teams fight for a title on the final day of the season. Sometimes, a third, a dark horse, sneaks in to snatch it away. Today though isn’t like any of those days. Today, four teams battle it out for the I-League title. One of any four results are possible, and the least likely is, on form, the most probable.
This, is what separates the rugged, rough, edgy, amateurish vintage of the I-League from the glamour heavy ISL. The fact that, on any given day, anything can happen, and regardless of what does, you go home with that wonderful afterglow—the kind that only absurd football can provoke.
East Bengal take on fellow title challengers NEROCA FC at the Salt Lake Stadium. It’s three points or nothing for either club, to stay in the race and put the pressure on Minerva. The loser takes home nothing. And then of course, there is Mohun Bagan, the team everyone counts out at their own peril. Bagan have had a terrible season, and even in their terrible season, they have come into the last day with a chance at the title. If Bagan beat Gokulam Kerala at their home, they immediately KO East Bengal title hopes—as any Kolkata football fan will tell you, that’s a win in itself. That is Bagan for you: that annoying little schoolyard kid who isn’t good enough to take home the trophy, but good enough to make sure you don’t either. Having won both Kolkata derbies this season, they will want to end by drilling the final nail in the coffin of their historic rivals and keep coach Khalid Jamil from any chance of repeating his success with Aizawl last year.
Which brings us, at last, to Minerva. For them, the game is stripped down to its very basic parameters. Win. And nothing else matters.