Going by history, there is hardly anything common between Mohammedan Sporting Club and Churchill Brothers.
Established in 1891, Mohammedan, in terms of old-styled community clubs in India, could really be the last of a dying, or maybe already dead breed. Churchill, in complete contrast, are a fully family-owned club, perhaps the country’s only front-ranking football institution to be named after its owner.
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Yet, there is a striking similarity between the two clubs separated by little over 2,000 kilometres. Both had displayed the uncanny knack of bouncing back whenever they were about to be written off. They survived miserable seasons, often got demoted from the top tier, but have somehow managed to crawl back under circumstances that would have sent many others packing.
The scene is no different in the 14th edition of the I-League. It hardly matters that Mohammedan had qualified for the I-League just once before this only to be demoted promptly in 2015, or Churchill suffered the same fate in 2017-18 but had mysteriously returned to the fold through some alleged backroom manipulations. In the I-League 2020-21 beginning on January 9, both Mohammedan Sporting and Churchill Brothers are strong title contenders.
Mohammedan have made the I-League after a gap of six seasons on their own strength -- they won the Second Division (or rather the I-League qualifying tournament) rather comprehensively only a couple of months ago. They looked a compact lot and going by their recent foreign recruits, a factor that makes all the difference in Indian domestic football these days, Mohammedan have the quality to challenge the opponents.
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Ghanaian attacking midfielder Mohammed Fatau is yet to make an appearance in the famous black and white jersey, but having played in La Liga, Turkish League and Saudi Arabian league, he holds considerable experience of playing in top tier football. Joining him will be Nigerian Raphael Onwrebe, who was the top scorer in Bangladesh Premier League for two seasons in a row. He had always been a prolific scorer, starting from his younger days in Nigeria.
Mohammedan have also roped in Denmark born Bangladesh captain Jamal Bhuyan, who had played for several smaller European outfits before joining the Kolkata team. A capacity crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium had a good look at him last year when he led Bangladesh to an impressive 1-1 draw against Igor Stimac’s India in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Equally experienced is Mohammedan’s fourth foreigner, central defender Eze Kingsley, a known figure in Indian domestic football for the past five years. But this season, Mohammedan are not just all about foreigners. They have a bunch of gritty footballers in Priyam Singh, Arijit Bagui, Tirthankar Sarkar, Gani Ahmed, SK Faiz, Hira Mondal, Abhinabh Bagh etc., who are a tried and tested lot in the local circuit. They are certainly not big names pushing for an immediate national call, but they are all known to be good operators having the ability to make a difference. Frankly, they are not good at I-League only – given a chance these boys have the ability to prove they are equal to many at a higher levels.
But again, Mohammedan’s problems had always been more off the pitch than on it. Their progress in the recent past had mostly been hampered by the club’s internal hitches. It is no different this season.
Mohammedan’s coach at the start of the season, Yan Law, has already been ousted, his sacking was announced midway through the Second Division campaign. His replacement, Jose Rodriguez Hevia, is no better placed -- he has earned the wrath of the club management in no time. The team’s poor run in the IFA Shield in December hasn’t pleased the management.
Now, prior to the start of I-League, the club has a new technical director in Shankarlal Chakrabarty, who is supposed to “guide” the Spanish coach. It could lead to further complications, but officials are unperturbed. Mohammedan Sporting always believed in their own style of functioning. And, with less than a week to go for the start of the I-League, the club’s investors, who joined the bandwagon with lots of fanfare, have threatened to pull out accusing the club of delaying in signing the contract.
In the club, only the football secretary Dipendu Biswas sounded disturbed. “We will talk to them and try to change their decision,” he said. No other senior official has shown the required urgency.
The goings on in Churchill Brothers are more in tune with a club that seems well settled. The family, after all, calls the shots. And, even though the calls are taken by a family, it has not always been logical. It appoints coaches (sacks them often too), selects local players and recruits foreigners. To tell the truth, Churchill have the history of introducing some top class foreigners to Indian football over the years. Starting from Percy Mwase, Phillip Mensah, Edward Ansah, Osumanu Hussein, Yusuf Yakubu to Odafa Okolie -- all have dazzled on Indian pitches thanks to efforts by Churchill and owner Churchill Alemao.
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It could be an equally good season too. The Goa side were placed eighth in the league table when the threat of pandemic brought I-League to a premature halt last season. Churchill are no pushovers this time as well, at least on paper.
Their Honduras striker Clayvin Zuniga Bernandez is said to be a lethal goalscorer, who had earlier played in Spain and Salvador, where he proved himself a productive scorer. He had also been a member of Honduras under-20 and under-23 national teams. Clayvin could easily be the man to watch in the 2020-21 I-League. With him will be Armand Bazie of Ivory Coast, who had played in Real Kashmir and Lebanon’s Hamza Kheir to lend solidity to defence.
Again, like Mohammedan, it would be a mistake to judge Churchill on their foreign recruits alone. There are local players like goalkeeper Shilton Paul, midfielders Israel Gurung, Vinil Pujari, Richard Costa and few others, who could turn into a winning combination under Fernando Varela. Central midfielder Lalelngzama Vangchhia is a promising footballer, who did well for the India under-19 team.
Both Mohammedan and Churchill look fine on paper. Raring to go, ready for the battle and all those. But there is something that can derail their campaign at any point of time. It has happened before. Not once but on a number of occasions in the past.
A veteran coach, who had handled both teams during his career, summed it up: “These are two teams, where the officials try to control everything; even selection of the starting eleven and substitutions during matches. Their demands are sometimes simply unacceptable. To attain results, they have to change their style of functioning. Unless they do, success will continue to elude.”
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