Updated: October 3, 2021 12:36:27 pm
The demand for tickets has reached such frenzied levels that Dipendu Biswas has to put his phone on silent mode and shove it to one corner of his office. But if the Mohammedan Sporting football secretary thought that would give him some respite, he’s mistaken. Thousands gathered outside the club’s tent in Kolkata on a rainy Friday afternoon to snap up tickets for Sunday’s Durand Cup final against FC Goa.
“We gave two tickets each to a couple of thousand people who came on Thursday,” Biswas says. “Today (Friday), more than 3,000 people are already waiting outside and we haven’t even started distributing tickets.”
The former India forward isn’t complaining; if anything, he sounds relaxed and joyful. For once, the celebratory chaos is at Sporting’s tent and not at their traditional rivals’, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
Seven years ago, a scenario like this seemed improbable. Mohammedan Sporting, the OG ‘Big Three’ of Indian football along with Bagan and East Bengal, were in such a dire situation financially that they had to disband their first team. Eulogies were written about the club romanticised for the idea it represented and the kind of football it once played.
U won’t see this pic anywhere in India apart from Kolkata. No wonder it’s called the Mecca of #IndianFootball.
My heart goes to all those fans who didn’t get tickets despite such patience. Due to pandemic, we have our limitations too in distributing tickets. Keep supporting us! pic.twitter.com/7QQpbFmjOX
— Dipak Kumar Singh (@dipaklamb) October 1, 2021
The reason for their decline was the same as that for many other legacy clubs – mismanagement and failure to adapt, which got accentuated amidst the churning of India’s domestic structure in the last decade.
Now, a team of young administrators comprising former footballers and even a doctor is trying to set the house in order. “We have focused on doing a lot of little things right,” says Taha Ahmed, the club’s assistant general secretary.
For Ahmed, this is a personal cause as much as professional. His father, Sultan, was at the helm of the club for decades and the driving force behind it. After he died in 2017, aged 64, Ahmed Jr – an orthopaedic surgeon by profession – moved from Delhi to Kolkata and began the rebuilding process.
“We got an investor who understands our vision. We have a coach from Russia on a long-term, three-year contract. Then, instead of administrators signing players, which happened earlier, we have let the coach build the team the way he wants,” Ahmed, 33, says. Biswas adds that a ‘world-class’ cafeteria is being constructed on the club’s premises. “It’s about doing things in a right, professional manner,” he says.
These, of course, are some of the things that are taken for granted in football. The fact that Sporting have started to do them only now shows how far they’ve been left behind; a mighty fall for a club formed in 1891, a decade before the Muslim League came into existence, that was once a pioneer in so many ways.
In 1933, when Kolkata’s major clubs played barefoot, Sporting’s players wore boots for the first time in a match so they could adapt and play better in the rain. The club did away with another tradition of Kolkata football by recruiting players from outside Bengal, thus transforming itself from being the face of Bengali Muslims to becoming the first pan-India club in a real sense.
“Even its fan base, I haven’t seen a team that was so well supported in all corners of the country,” Biswas, who has also played for Bagan and East Bengal, says. “I remember once after we lost the Federation Cup final against Mahindra United (in 2003), a fan was so heartbroken that he jumped from the upper tier of the stadium. I haven’t seen anything like that in Indian football.”
During their peak, stadium gates would have to be closed hours before kick-off to prevent overcrowding wherever Sporting went to play. Thousands swayed to the tunes of legendary footballers like Iran’s Majid Bishkar, who played for the ‘Black Panthers’. In Mumbai, the late thespian Dilip Kumar often popped in to watch them, and the great Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote poetry to honour the team.
— Mohammedan SC (@MohammedanSC) October 2, 2021
But with time, as Indian football’s demography changed, several legacy clubs were late to adapt. And Sporting was one among them. Their biggest challenge was financial. The management turned down sponsorship offers from alcohol brands, which bankrolled Bagan and East Bengal, and no other corporate showed a willingness to be associated with them.
Sporting relied on donations from wealthy individuals and gate receipts on match days, but that alone was not enough to sustain a club as player salaries and administrative costs rose. “How long can you run a club with money pooled by a handful of people?” Sultan had said in 2014 while announcing the closure of its first team.
The turnaround since then has been gradual. And now, they find themselves within touching distance of a first major title in nearly a decade. There’s something eerily poetic about Mohammedan Sporting playing in the Durand Cup final – a hundred-plus-year-old club, forgotten in most parts of the country, trying to resurrect itself by reaching the final of a hundred-plus-year-old competition, which, too, has been forgotten in most parts of the country.
“In 2016, when General Bipin Rawat became Chief of Army Staff, he decided that if the Durand Cup has to get back to its legacy, the only place that’s possible is the capital of (Indian) football and that’s Kolkata. So, we shifted the tournament from Delhi,” Chief of Staff, Eastern Command, Lieutenant General KK Repswal says. “And I am very happy that we have Mohammedan Sporting playing in the final. They have a very special place as they were the first Indian (civilian) club to win this Cup.”
Any talk of a revival of Indian football’s fallen giant is still too early. But as Indian football stabs in the dark and tries to forge some sort of identity, Sporting’s march into the final is a gentle reminder. “With our performance, we just want to remind everyone in India that guys, we are still here,” Ahmed says.
The thousands who will fill up the Salt Lake Stadium on Sunday will further attest to this claim.
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