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Brothers gonna work it out?

The lazy comparison would be with a team from Lancashire and the deep pockets of a son of the soil that made possible the most unlikely of English Premiership victories in 1994-95. But Blackburn Rovers were founder members of the Football League, with an illustrious history long before Jack Walker made his millions in the steel industry.

Churchill Brothers have no history to speak off, no misty-eyed tales of glory from the days before the continent's green fields became cemeteries for an entire generation of young men.
The one thing that the I-League's Churchill Brothers do have in common with the team that emphasises Arte et Labore, apart from a benevolent patron, are roots in a region where football stirs the blood quite like nothing else.

Goa conjures up images of pristine beaches, plentiful seafood, sun-loungers, surf, spray and all-night raves. It also has a dark side, with the Russian mafia muscling in on dubious land deals, and rapes and murders in places that were once a haven for the "Make-love-not-war" generation. Through all the change though, one thing has remained constant in the erstwhile Portuguese colony. They like their music, their dance and their siestas, but nothing gets the Goan quite as animated as a leather ball being kicked around, on grass or beach.

Churchill Brothers have no history to speak off, no misty-eyed tales of glory from the days before the continent's green fields became cemeteries for an entire generation of young men.

They also belong to a country where football is an afterthought to all-powerful cricket, a sport that is discussed intensely only in the month when a World Cup is played. But times, they are a changin', slowly, and if the team established in 1988 by the powerful Alemao family can hold their nerve during the final round of matches on Thursday, they will clinch their first league title .

For a side that was relegated at the end of the 2004-05 season, the subsequent renaissance has been nothing short of stunning, and success against once-mighty Mohammedan Sporting would at least partly assuage the pain of 12 months ago, when local rivals Dempo pipped them to the title on goal difference [+22 to +18]. It would also be the climatic note in a late-season surge that has seen them win five and draw one, and overhaul Sporting Clube de Goa, the long-time leader.

Sporting Clube are even more of a Cinderella story. Formed in 1999, their home colours are a tribute to the Dutch, while the away kit with white and green hoops instantly makes you think of Sporting Lisbon or Glasgow Celtic. But after a superb victory against Churchill Brothers the day after Valentine's Day, they've run out of puff, drawing two and losing one of their last three games. It would need a score of basketball-like proportions, allied with other results going their way, for them to lay their hands on the premier prize in the domestic game.

Not that Sporting deserve to win either. They have been dreadfully dour at times, scoring just 25 goals from 21 games, the lowest of any team in the top five. In a league typified by contests between teams that have misplaced their shooting boots, Churchill have been the fresh sea breeze to breathe life into moribund games. Though they have often wobbled at the back, conceding 21 goals, they've scored 47, 14 more than Dempo, who lie in fourth place.

Look a little closer though, and you see a team that's even more reliant on two individuals than Liverpool are on Senor Torres and Mr Gerrard. Odafe Onyeka Okolie, their Nigerian striker, has scored 24 of the goals, with his compatriot, Felix Chimaokwu, contributing 11. The influence of Nwankwo Kanu's countrymen is further stressed by the six goals that Ogba Kalu Nnanna has plundered from midfield.

What then stands between Churchill and ultimate glory? Kolkata's Mohun Bagan are the most famous club in the land, India's answer to Manchester United.

Unlike Sir Alex Ferguson's boys though, they haven't won a league title since 2001-02, and the current campaign has been disrupted by their disastrous participation in the AFC Cup. But after starting the season with a paltry three points from their first five games, they went on a sensational 10-match winning streak that ended only with a humiliating 3-0 defeat in the big Kolkata derby against East Bengal.

Despite the setback in India's answer to the Anfield-Old Trafford rivalry and a fixture logjam, the team coached by Morocco's Karim Bencherifa has persevered. They say champions make their own luck, and Bagan found their answer to Federico Macheda in Nanjangud Shivananju Manju, whose fine header with almost four minutes of added time played clinched victory against Dempo last Sunday.

Bencherifa's fist-pumping celebrations and the utter bedlam in the stands mirrored the belief of a side that has Indian football's most iconic player, Bhaichung Bhutia. The pint-sized forward from the tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim spent a couple of fruitless seasons at Bury a decade ago, but on home turf he has had few peers. His combination with Jose Ramirez Barreto, the Brazilian, has given Bagan hope, though Churchill still hold all the aces.

I do not want to comment on Mohammedan Sporting's reaction. It is up to them whether they accept the award or not.
Anjan Mitra, Bagan's general secretary
Many Bagan fans will find it deeply ironic that their destiny lies in the hands of another of their great rivals. Mohammedan Sporting were India's most successful club in the decade before WW II, with Mohammed Salim, their famed barefoot winger, even captivating fans at Celtic Park in 1936-37 . The decline in their fortunes since then though has been dramatic, and these days they're little better than Sunderland, who won the Cup that season but have been perennial strugglers in the Premier League era.

Nothing less than victory against Churchill will do if Mohammedan are to stay up, and both Jagatjit Cotton and Textile Mills FC and the newly formed Chirag United have easier fixtures in the relegation dogfight. Bagan have already lit the fuse ahead of the final round of games by offering Mohammedan 5,00,000 Rupees [roughly 7000 pounds] as incentive to win. "It is for the interest of football, we have decided to give them an incentive if they win on April 16, said Anjan Mitra, Bagan's general secretary. "I do not want to comment on Mohammedan Sporting's reaction. It is up to them whether they accept the award or not."

Mohammedan may be in dire straits on the pitch, but the derisory offer could just spur them on to get exactly the result that Bagan need. Shabbir Ali, the former Indian international who now coaches them, was irate, claiming that Bagan had done so just for "the sake of cheap publicity".

Far fewer people tune in to watch the games when compared to the Premier League or the Champions League, but at least India's best teams have given the fanatic local fans a season with more twists than the old Hockenheim track. The Alemao family are de facto kings of Goa - Churchill Alemao is a former chief minister and a current member of parliament - but you sense that a couple of goals from Odafe on Thursday really would be the jewel in the crown.

Final round of fixtures [with points]:

Churchill Brothers [43] v Mohammedan Sporting [22]
Mahindra United [28] v Mohun Bagan [43]
Air India [24] v Sporting Clube de Goa [40]
East Bengal [27] v Dempo [30]
JCT [22] v Mumbai FC [28]
Vasco Sports Club [10] v Chirag United [23]


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