How do you win a league that has remained elusive for more than a decade? Simple, you just go and raid the team that has just won it. At least that’s what East Bengal seem to believe.
On Wednesday, the club unveiled their latest signing—Khalid Jamil. The 40-year-old coach, who guided Aizawl FC to the I-League title, was finally wooed by East Bengal. Speculation is rife that his one-year contract is worth Rs 1.25 crore, which is just Rs 25 lakh less than Aizawl’s whole budget last season.
When he officially takes charge of the dressing room next month, Jamil will find quite a few familiar faces. While they were negotiating with Jamil, East Bengal had already bought four players from the I-League-winning Aizawl squad – Brandon Vanlalremdika, Mahmoud Al Amna, Lalramchullova and Kingsley Eze.
To complete the dismantling of Aizawl’s champion squad, East Bengal have set their sights on defender Ashutosh Mehta, midfielder Jayesh Rane and goalkeeper Albino Gomes. Among the Indians in the Aizawl squad, these three were the only players from outside Mizoram. East Bengal have already offered them contracts but it is believed the three are waiting for the ISL and I-League mess to be sorted out before making any decision.
If they too follow Jamil and the rest of their teammates to Kolkata, the core of Aizawl’s squad will be gone. “I knew it was always going to be tough for us to keep our main players,” Aizawl owner Robert Royte admits. “We don’t have the resources. East Bengal have plenty.”
Over the last 10 years, East Bengal have doled out hundreds of crores in assembling, dismantling and reassembling squads in their quest for the I-League crown. Several crores more were splurged on coaches but none could win them the title.
So one can imagine their frustration when the likes of Bengaluru FC and Aizawl built their squad with virtually nothing and still won the league. And to rub salt into their wounds, city rivals Mohun Bagan, too, have managed to lay their hands on the trophy in recent times.
From Aizawl’s point of view, the exodus was expected. The Mizo club never had the financial strength to keep the wolf from the door. Amna was Aizawl’s highest-paid player last season, earning Rs 6 lakh. At East Bengal, he is reportedly getting 10 times more. It’s a similar trend with the others as well.
More players might leave the club once the ISL rules are announced. If there’s a draft or auction, the Mizo players, who are in demand countrywide, are likely to put their names in it.
“I have 18 players with me right now. I know some of them will leave but there are 200 other players at our academy. There’s a lot of talent, I’ll have a great squad,” Royte says. “Khalid going is a setback, I agree. He is a great coach. But he deserves to be at a big club. I am happy for him.”
East Bengal had been courting Jamil for years. The Kuwait-born former India international first snubbed them as a player back in 2002. Fifteen years later, they have finally got him to sign a deal after chasing him for months. “Honestly, I did not want to leave Aizawl… (But) I won the I-League and I thought it’s time for me to take up the challenge at the next level,” Jamil says.
What a dizzying period this must be for Jamil. A year ago, he was sacked by Mumbai FC and few were willing to gamble on him because of his straight-talking nature. In the last six months, he has won the league, been named the best coach at the AIFF awards, and now has become the highest-paid Indian manager in the I-League. Talk about redemption.
After spending a decade with minnows Mumbai and Aizawl, how his relationship with an impatient East Bengal management and the club’s fickle fans shapes up will be interesting to see.
East Bengal, meanwhile, will bear an unmistakable Aizawl flavour when they line up for the I-League (if at all it happens) next season. Whether it translates into a title is anybody’s guess.