Since the turn of the century the country has seen several fairytales being written in the top flight.
The Indian football scene has usually been dominated by clubs from West Bengal or Goa and such has been the case over the years, if domestic league competition is concerned. Before the I-League came into existence, the premier league competition in India was the National Football League which was initiated in 1996 and was later transformed into the I-League we know today; when the popularity of football was on the rise.
Even though the league title in the NFL and the I-League was mostly exchanged between teams like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Dempo Sports Club, there have been a few occasions when the underdogs have gone on to win the crown, to the shock of the masses.
This gives us the opportunity to look back at the top-five most improbable league title victories in the history of Indian football:
5. Mahindra United – 2005-06
The National Football League was dominated by East Bengal and Mohun Bagan since its early life, with both rival teams collecting six championships between them. However, the latter stages of the NFL saw the rise of Dempo. The Goan outfit won the 2004-05 and 2006-07 editions, but the campaign of 2005-06 saw a resolute Mahindra United runaway with the league title.
It was their maiden league championship, since their best finish prior to this was a third place in the 2003-04 season. Nobody had given Mahindra a chance at the beginning of the season, as they did not have any star players that stoodout.
But, with a brilliant collective display and tactical masterclass by their manager Derrick Pereira, the Mumbai-based outfit finished at the top of the standings with 36 points, five ahead of second-placed East Bengal. The club has now ceased to exist after their closure at the end of the 2009-10 season.
4. Salgaocar FC – 2010-11
Salgaocar FC were one of the many Goan clubs that plied their trade in the toptier of Indian football. However, among the clubs based in Goa, Salgaocar lacked the resources and were overshadowed by teams like Dempo and Churchill Brothers over the years. But, they made headlines when they secured their second league title in the 2010-11 season, shocking many contenders, especially their city rivals Dempo.
Salgaocar last won the league when it was still in its NFL days, back in 1999-2000, which made them the first Goan team to do so. Therefore, winning the league after an 11-year gap was impressive in its own right.
They also won the 2011 Indian Federation Cup to win their second trophy of the year, thereby completing a double of league and cup wins. Then manager, Karim Bencherifa was hailed as one of the best managers of the year for taking the Greens to two trophies within a short period of time against tougher opposition.
3. Bengaluru FC – 2013-14
By the 2013-14 campaign, the I-League was in its seventh edition. The title was incredibly won by a new team which was making its debut on the big stage. Bengaluru FC were founded that same year and were participating in their first-ever league season. Therefore, when they clinched the title, they became the first team ever to win the I-League in their debut campaign. Sunil Chhetri was the joint top scorer with 14 goals for The Blues.
Bengaluru FC won the I-League in their debut season in 2013-14
Since then, Bengaluru have been one of the leading clubs in terms of the state of the art infrastructure and facilities provided to the players. They have been setting standards in professionalism for other clubs to follow. Bengaluru finished second in the next year playing as defending champions and went on to win the I-League again in the 2015-16 season.
2. Aizawl FC – 2016-17
Since its establishment in the year 2007, the I-League was now in its tenth season. The hegemony of Goan and Bengali clubs was now fading faster than ever. This fact was perfectly evident thanks to the triumph of Aizawl FC, who became the league champions on the final day after finishing the campaign with 37 points, with only a single point separating them and second-placed Mohun Bagan who finished on 36. Aizawl became the first team from Northeast India to lift the I-League title.
Aizawl FC clinched their maiden I-League crown in the 2016-17 season
Interestingly, Aizawl were relegated from the top tier in the season prior to their championship winning campaign. However, with Goan clubs like Dempo, Sporting Goa and Salgaocar withdrawing from the I-League due to differences with the AIFF over the Indian Super League, Aizawl were reinstated into the top division, which they eventually went on to win in iconic fashion.
1. Minerva Punjab FC – 2017-18
Minerva Punjab won the I-League in the 2017-18 season
Last year’s campaign saw another underdog claim their maiden I-League title. Minerva Punjab clinched their first-ever crown at the national level. Their triumph was unexpected due to the lack of experience the club had playing in the top division. In a nerve-wracking finale, Minerva finished in first place on the standings with 35 points, beating then top flight debutants NEROCA FC to the title by a gap of three points.
The Warriors played with a sense of fearlessness and punched way above their weight under their head coach Khogen Singh and technical director Joel Richard Williams. Their championship winning feat was particularly impressive due to the fact that it was the first time a North Indian club had won the league since 1996, a gap of 21 years.