Salva Chamorro of Mohun Bagan celebrates after scoring against Mohammedan Sporting in their Durand Cup match.
Kolkata: Mohammedan Sporting are the third most successful club in the city that is the spiritual home of football in India. Which is a bit like being called the third-greatest Mughal in the history of the dynasty. Well played, but everyone be talking about the other two.
Mohammedan Sporting have won 11 Calcutta League titles, which is great, except that Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have a combined 59. And when you start exploring the math you realise that of the ‘Big Three’ Mohammedan have won the Durand Cup most recently, grabbing their second title in 73 years, back in 2013. While Sporting fans waited, Bagan and East Bengal took the Durand home 32 times between them. Far from being the biggest football club in town, they aren’t even the biggest in the parra. The picture Mohammedan Sports presents is the little giant, always proud, forever overshadowed.
And if Friday evening’s Durand Cup opening game of the 129th edition of the Durand Cup is any indication, the chasm is here to stay. And not just on the pitch. Around the 85th minute, the Emcee at the stadium announced the attendance to be 28,300 for the evening. Mohammedan must have contributed the 300. Of the rest, a majority were a Bagan horde, eclipsing the school children who had forcibly (though enjoyably, it appeared) been dragged out for the contest.
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The pre-match festivities were under clear skies. There had been rain a few hours earlier, but it seemed to have occurred to provide the perfect background for the match. A marching band, the team warm up and the first round of dignitaries were all under a cloudy sunset. But, by the time the teams walked back out, rain had descended on the stadium.
Two minutes into the game, the season and the tournament, Mohammedan were down by a goal. The first two minutes of their season a defensive mistake on a colossal scale. In the post match press conference — skipped by the head coach— team manager Bilal Khan was keen to point out how, in the first game, a goal like that within two minutes could dent confidence. “They were a little nervous after that,” he explained, “And that nervousness didn’t help matters in the next twenty minutes.”
Within 21 minutes, Bagan were up by two, both goals scored by Salvador Perez Martinez (Salva Chamorro), the new signing, a part of Bagan’s fresh Spanish brigade on a dream debut. At that stage it looked like a cricket score in the offing. Mohammedan couldn’t string together five passes of worth. In the first 40 minutes, they had no shots on goal, no touches in the Bagan box, and two corners shooed away by the first marker.
Right on the stroke of half time though, there was a spark. It was Tirthankar Sarkar, affectionately (and derogatorily) called Mashi by the crowd, who was at the helm. Sarkar is a product of the Bagan youth academy. Having represented India at every age group, bar the seniors, Sarkar was hailed as a rare talent when he was younger. He was drafted to the Pailan Arrows in 2010, before making his way back to Bagan and then across the curve to Mohammedan now. At just 26, he is Mashi (aunt), a moniker, we are told, comes from the substantial girth of his midriff.
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Even with that girth, including a bit of off-season indulgence, Sarkar was at the centre of everything Mohammedan did going forward. The first real opportunity was via a perfect chipped pass on to the run of Arthur Kouassi. Kouassi was favourite to score, he was eight yards to goal, one-on-one against Shilton Paul. Kouasse headed, Paul parried it away. The cheer for that save was the loudest of the evening.
Mohammedan did improve after the break, and Bagan tired. The intermittent rain, the stifling humidity and the first fixture of the season all playing a part in the second half melodrama. Sarkar ran amok, creating two more chances, one for Sovan Sen, who broke from the left, but Paul had the post covered. The second fell to Kouassi, again. The Ivorian stumbled, recovered and then broke the ball through to Satyam Sharma for a shot. Sharma shot well, but Paul was on a roll.
Sarkar curled some beautiful crosses in, and generally tried to affect the game. But his opposite number, Joseba Beitia was smarter, slicker and had a bit more groove going on. Every time Bagan won the ball in a tight spot, with Mohammedan pressing, they passed the ball to Joseba, who flitted in, controlled it and turned away from the opposition markers, or took a foot, a leg, an arm to earn a foul.
Bilal would, simultaneously, rue and praise his team’s performance in the second half. “We created five clear chances, hit the crossbar, and forced their goalkeeper to make smart saves. They had two chances, and they scored twice,“ he said.
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The statistics tell a half truth, though. Mohammedan had chances, but almost all of them fell in a maddeningly open 20 minutes of game time. Bagan did enough for the rest of it. They did enough because that is all they needed to do. They kept Mohammedan an arms length for the most part, and thrilled their supporters with some potshots from distance.
Sarkar, though, had a final role to play. He had been the unmissable attraction for Mohammedan through the game, and quite rightly he also got their best chance. Paul, the hero at the other end, made his first huge error of the game, playing a goal kick out short to the top of the box, where his defender was pickpocketed by Mashi. It was one-on-one, or even three-on-one, considering two more Mohammedan players had joined in the attack. Paul charged off his line, and Sarkar made the one, big, error of his game. He tried to get cute, when effective was necessary. He dinked the ball… wide.
‘Oporadh’ was the word being thrown around in the press box as Sarkar sank to his knees. A crime to miss from there. It would be his team’s final chance of the evening. But that wasn’t the real crime. The crime was what Bagan did in added time. With Mohammedans’ spirit gone, and their hopes of a first win against the Mariners in two years extinguishing via simmer, Bagan added insult to injury. They had held their rivals at arms length for 90 minutes. For the last two, they decided to play. Mohammedan didn’t touch the ball in the final two minutes. Bagan played over 50 passes within themselves. They went up, almost to the goalmouth, and then back all the way. They went wide, and they went narrow, till the referee had enough and called time.
East Bengal, meanwhile, had a very different sort of battle in their opener against one of the two Army teams in the fray, Army Red. The Armymen proved tough to break down and East Bengal seemed to be battling some rustiness in the final third. In the end, though, the quality came through. Army Red were down to 10-men in the 82nd minute when their goalkeeper, Shanoos, was sent off. Another Spanish import, Jaime Santos, found the back of the net off the resultant free kick to set the Red and Gold’s season in motion. An injury-time tap in by Bidyasagar secured the result. Cue more celebrations in Kumartoli.
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