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Sacking, Promotion, Celebration and Caution: Mohammedan Sporting’s Ghosts Refuse to Disappear

Jaydeep Basu |
The historied club, a grand institution of Indian football, has been languishing in the doldrums for over a decade. Renewed suddenly, they have won promotion to the I-League. But a lot of work needs to be done. A lot of cleaning too. And what better way to begin than at home.
Mohammedan Sporting in I-league

Mohammedan Sporting Club won the five-team I-League Qualifier tournament which concluded earlier this week in Kolkata. The victory earned them a spot in the 2020-21 I-League.

Chuni Goswami’s glorious career as a footballer came to a fitting end in 1967 when he struck the all-important goal in Mohun Bagan’s 1-0 triumph over East Bengal in the Calcutta Football League (CFL). 

Once the customary celebrations at the club tent were over, Goswami returned home to find that a gigantic handi of mutton biryani had been delivered to his Jodhpur Park residence by some unknown fans. The handi contained so much biryani that Goswami couldn’t finish it, despite liberally distributing it among his neighbours and friends.

The biryani was delivered not by Mohun Bagan fans, but by a jubilant bunch of Mohammedan Sporting supporters. Goswami’s match-winner didn’t help Mohun Bagan. Languishing low in the table they were already out of contention for the title. His goal crowned Mohammedan as the league champions — at East Bengal’s cost no less — after 10 years. 

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This was a story Goswami narrated often to prove how passionate Mohammedan fans always were. He truly believed the club had the largest fan base at every nook and corner of the country. 

Jump cut to October 2020; the front gate of the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata. A few hundred fans gathered to celebrate Mohammedan Sporting’s entry in the I-League after a gap of seven years. The club had ensured themselves promotion after defeating Bhawanipore FC. The goalless draw against Bengaluru United was just the icing on the cake. 

The social distancing norm was shelved temporarily. Footballers were being embraced by the fans. Club secretary Wasim Akram was garlanded. A beaming football secretary-cum-technical director, Dipendu Biswas, set the tone for the future.

“Our long wait is finally over. We have made it to the I-League after seven years,” he said. “Our aim, however, is not to play, but to play well, possibly to emerge champions. In the recent past, whenever we made the I-League, we found ourselves relegated quickly. This time, it shouldn’t be like that. As the lone representative of Kolkata football in the I-League, we must do well.”

Biswas hit the nail on the head. To say the least. No club in the country has let their supporters down as much as Mohammedan Sporting. The 131-year-old black and white brigade has everything a club can ask for – a rich history, a series of magnificent results in the last century and a large number of loyal fans, who would never desert the institution. Yet, all of these are spoken about in the past tense in the last couple of decades. They have been struggling and remain the biggest under-achiever on Indian football’s recent past.

Several reasons have been attributed to Mohammedan’s steady decline over the years, a decline that has seen the club reduced to an ordinary outfit,  not even regarded as contenders in the local league. 

The truth is that Mohammedan’s weakened avataar may be due to a lack of financial support and an extremely vulnerable management. Both are interlinked, one cannot be separated from the other. The absence of a strong management with a modern outlook has troubled many Kolkata clubs over the years. It has discouraged sponsors. Invariably. Mohammedan can be placed at the top of this dubious list.

It hasn’t been much different this time either. The ouster of coach Yan Law after one match during the four-match I-League qualifiers has left a bad taste in the mouth of many. Law has been accused of trying to sabotage the club’s prospects – so much so, that the club authorities have filed an FIR in the local police station against him. For a club which has just roped in an investor to bolster its cash-strapped institution, it is certainly not the most auspicious of beginnings. 

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It is worth mentioning that the club is yet to supply proof of Law’s guilt. But that is a moot point. The problem is, Mohammedan, over the years, have chopped and changed coaches with such unfailing regularity that the club management, with all due respect to, have lost a lot of credibility. 

There is not one coach in the Kolkata football market, who hasn’t found himself on the wrong side of the club management after a brief stint at the helm. Ask Syed Nayeemuddin, Mohammed Habib, Subash Bhowmick, Bishwajit Bhattacharya, Subroto Bhattacharya and many others. It would be hard to find a story with a happy ending. 

Former India captain and Mohammedan Sporting legend Shabbir Ali, however, looks at it differently. “I really don’t know the exact reason behind Law’s unceremonious exit. But what I hear is that this management is different. They do have a plan to take the game to the next level. But again many more things have to be done if the club really hopes to play the Indian Super League (ISL). A bigger effort is needed.”

Ace midfielder Prasanta Banerjee, who donned Mohammedan colours for a couple of seasons in the early 1980s, is clear about the road to success. “For that, you need to recruit the best players available in the market. And to make it happen, you need a deep pocket.”

Prasanta, a key member of Indian team in the 1980s, recounts a priceless story of Indian club football. Ever since winning the CFL in 1967 and a few trophies here and there, Mohammedan’s fortune was on constantly running downhill. Irfan Taher Randerian, a respectable businessman in Kolkata and then president of the club, decided to pump in serious money to turn the club’s fortunes around.

In 1980, Mohammedan recruited a host of star footballers. The group included Shabbir Ali, Shyamal Ghosh, Surojit Sengupta, Bhaskar Ganguly, Chinmoy Chatterjee, Prasanta Banerjee, Ramen Bhattacharya and a few others. Mockingly, many said that Mohammedan have become a club of Bengali Brahmins, but the result was stupendous.

Over the next couple of seasons, Mohammedan were a team unparalleled. The CFL trophy returned to the club tent after 14 seasons. So did the DCM Cup, Rovers Cup and some other trophies. In 1983 and 1984, Mohammedan won back-to-back Federation Cups. 

“I played for Mohammedan for a couple of seasons. It was a unique experience. The club management was top class; the payment always came on time. The officials ran the club with extreme passion. In 1980, when we won the DCM Cup beating a South Korean team in the final, Mr. Randerian took off his gold-plated wrist watch and presented it to Debasis Roy, who scored the match-winner,” Prasanta recalled.

A former Mohammedan footballer, who did not wish to be named, felt a lot more has to be done if the club wants to bring back their glory days. “They do have some good players like Vanlabiaa Chhangte, Munmum Lugun, Gani Nigam etc. and a couple of decent foreign recruits. But reaching the top tier is not enough. In fact, they have to really fight it out in the I-League with this squad,” he said.

The news from sources is that Mohammedan are set to follow the latest trend of Indian football. A Spanish coach may be roped in for the I-League campaign. If their football secretary Dipendu Biswas is to be believed, a few more footballers would be recruited to strengthen the side for the I-League.  

A hugely encouraging development. Certainly. But Mohammedan have to set things right in their own backyard first. To give it out in writing the coach was at fault by “unilaterally” choosing his first XI as per his “whims and caprices” is not the best advertisement of the club’s professional approach. Man management off the ground is of equal importance in modern football. A few wrong steps here and there could derail things on the pitch too. 

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