By Rohit Mundayur
New Delhi, Jan 9 (IANS) Mohammedan Sporting Club will play their first I-League match in seven years when they face Delhi’s Sudeva FC on Saturday in the first game of the 2020/21 season. It has been a long road back to the top for the club, who for a better part of their history were seen as part of a triumvirate of clubs ruling the roost in Kolkata.
The term ‘Kolkata giants’ in the context of Indian football has for the past two decades brought images of a packed Salt Lake stadium cheering for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. The two clubs have had seen their ups and downs in the I-League but their capacity to spark extreme emotions and draw big crowds went a long way in them getting berths in the Indian Super League (ISL) this season.
In the 21st century, Mohammedan Sporting have been relegated to being an also-ran in the Calcutta Football League (CFL) and have hardly ever played in India’s top football leagues but theirs is a name that keeps cropping up whenever one looks up the history of the game in the country.
Founded in 1891, Mohammedan Sporting hold the distinction of being the first club to do the double of winning the CFL and the IFA Shield in the same year. That achievement came in 1936 and it was part of a period between 1934 and 1938 when they won the CFL five years in a row.
Their popularity transcended Kolkata in the post-independence years due to their exploits in the Durand Cup, Rovers Cup and the DCM Trophy.
“There was a time when most of the top players from Mohun Bagan or East Bengal joined Mohammedan Sporting,” former India goalkeeper Brahmanand Sankhwalkar told IANS. Sankhwalkar faced Mohammedan Sporting numerous times during his 17-year career with Goa’s giants Salgaocar.
“Whenever we Goans used to play against these three Kolkata clubs, we used to go prepared to face a strong team. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have maintained that while Mohammedan have unfortunately slipped down. They had fans everywhere, especially in Delhi. When Mohammedan Sporting came to town there was always crowds coming to the stadium. Good that they are back in the I-League and I hope that they maintain this now.”
Mohammedan Sporting were the first Indian club in the post-Independence period to win the CFL in 1948, while memories of the bloody riots during the Partition was still fresh in the memories of the residents of the city. In his book ‘Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football’, football historian and veteran journalist Novy Kapadia writes that old-timers often recall how their faith in Indian democracy was restored due to the unbiased manner in which the league was held that year, culminating in Mohammedan’s victory.
“Wherever we went and played, whether it be in Hyderabad, Kerala, Kashmir; everywhere there were fans for us,” says Atanu Bhattacharya, the former goalkeeper who played for Mohammedan Sporting in the 1980s, arguably the last decade in which the club competed with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan on equal footing.
“In our days we would always try to win against the other two clubs and many of the times we were successful. As a player it was one of the greatest moments to be playing in those matches, we would play at stadia like the Eden Gardens and there would be lakhs of fans shouting for both clubs,” he continued.
Many reasons have been attributed to Mohammedan Sporting’s downfall over the past three decades, chief among which is a trigger-happy management. The club’s off-pitch troubles finally spilled on to their results and it meant that while the new century brought in television coverage and sponsorship deals for sports organisations, Mohammedan Sporting were largely left behind. They were promoted to the I-League twice — in 2007/08 and 2012/13 — only to be promptly relegated the very next season.
Former India midfielder Ishfaq Ahmed played for Mohammedan Sporting in the 2013/14 season and also faced the club numerous times in the six years that he played for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. “When I played against them for Bagan or East Bengal, it was always seen as the most crucial match of the tournament, despite them not having the best team. They always competed somehow, whether it be in the Calcutta league or wherever. It always a difficult match against them,” Ahmed said.
In the season that Ahmed played for Mohammedan Sporting, the club won the IFA Shield, beating Bangladesh club Sheikh Jamal Dhanmodi in the final. Ahmed hopes that the club now approach their new stint in I-League with some professionalism and make a case for themselves to eventually get promoted to the ISL.
“Hope they have a strong project now, and in the future qualify for the ISL. This I-League season they should treat as a base to build a strong team. Don’t need to aim to win the title this season, they should just evaluate where they are weak and look at this as a way to move forward. It is very important for clubs like Mohammedan Sporting to be competing at the highest level because they attract people to the stadia. That is how you generate interest and popularise football,” he said.
While the current hierarchy led by general secretary SK Wasim Akram and football secretary and club legend Dipendu Biswas is often seen as different from the previous iterations, Mohammedan Sporting did sack coach Yan Law after just one match during the four-match I-League qualifiers in October.
The sacking came despite the fact that the team had secured a resounding 4-1 win and the management reportedly accused Law of sabotaging the team and leaking conversations. But the team only went on to secure promotion to the I-League and former Mohun Bagan coach Sankarlal Chakraborty was appointed as technical director for the season. Only time will tell if Law’s sacking was only a one-off decision made by a club looking to bury the ghosts of its past or an indication that old habits die hard.