Mohammedan Sporting’s tryst with destiny

Author : Novy Kapadia
Tolgay Ozbey (10) of Mohammedan Sporting with team mates after scoring goal against ONGC during the Durand Cup final

Tolgay Ozbey (10) of Mohammedan Sporting with team mates after scoring goal against ONGC during the Durand Cup final

History has an uncanny way of repeating itself. Twenty six years ago, Mohammedan Sporting won the Rovers Cup on 7th December 1987, beating Mohun Bagan 2-0 in the final. A day later on 8th December 1987, they flew back to play their IFA Shield group League match returning straight from Bombay to the Salt Lake stadium. Mohammedan Sporting lost to South 24 Parganas 1-2 and to Port Trust on 9th December 1987, and got eliminated from the IFA Shield as a result of fixture congestion.

Twenty six years later, their supporters and officials were jubilant as they won the Durand tournament on 19th September after a lapse of 73 years. But the victory and the flight from Delhi to Kolkata took its toll. Two days later, they started their I–League campaign on a dismal note, losing their home match 1-3 to Pune FC. It is not just the loss; the pressure of playing two mentally demanding matches and travelling from one city to another has taken a toll on the players.

In the Durand final, ace defender 34-year-old Luciano Sabrosa fell awkwardly in the closing minutes of the game, damaged his forearm and could be out of action for a month. The Brazilian is the mainstay and guiding force of Mohammedan Sporting’s defence and his absence will be sorely felt. A knock-out cup final is always a game of great intensity and the Durand final also had its share of excessive body play.

Winning the Durand trophy was no doubt a great morale booster for the club and revived the interest of their numerous fans, but at what cost? It must be seen as a Pyrrhic victory as the absence of Sabrosa due to injury could cost the club many points in the ongoing 7th I-League.

To add to their woes hyperactive, attacking midfielder Penn Orji, limped off in the opening I-League home match, which Mohammedan Sporting lost 1-3 to Pune FC. The Kolkata club will hope that Orji recovers soon; otherwise they will be without two key players in their opening I-League matches. The club management must now be pondering whether it was the right decision to send the team to the Durand tournament, just days before the start of the country’s premier competition, the I-League.

Pune FC is having the last laugh. They sent a depleted squad to the 126th Durand tournament, without any of their foreign players. Consisting mostly of junior players, they lost 0-2 to Army Red and 1-2 to ONGC in their group IV quarter final league games. However, their main team is fresh and injury free for the vital I-League matches.

In the long run, Pune FC was more professional in their approach to these two tournaments. It also shows why Kolkata teams have not won the I-League (earlier known as the National football league) since 2004 as they attempt to over-reach. In the build up to their I-League opener on September 21, Mohammedan Sporting played six matches in 11 days, two Kolkata league and four Durand tournament games. Even though they rotated players from their squad, this is not an ideal build-up for a marathon tournament like the I-league.

But Mohammedan Sporting’s management is not entirely to blame. Their predicament along with the other two Kolkata clubs is much more deep-rooted. They, along with Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, are the only supporter based clubs in the country, so their fans demand trophies.

Fixture congestion eventually led to Mohammedan Sporting losing its first I-League encounter

Fixture congestion eventually led to Mohammedan Sporting losing its first I-League encounter

Also Mohammedan Sporting, like other Kolkata clubs are steeped in history. So for them, the Durand tournament has rich associative memories. For decades Mohammedan Sporting’s major claim to fame was that they were the first Indian club to win the prestigious Durand tournament, which was always witnessed by the Viceroy himself during colonial rule. They were not only the first but only Indian club to win the Durand tournament in the colonial era. This was an iconic triumph similar to Mohun Bagan’s 1911 IFA Shield victory. Newer clubs like Pune FC, Shillong Lajong or the Goan clubs do not face such a predicament, the pulls and pressures of history. Kolkata clubs will have to learn to balance their commitments and re-schedule the local league so that their top clubs do not become jaded during the main competition, the I-League

For Mohammedan Sporting winning the Durand tournament in 1940 had considerable symbolic significance also. The 1940 Durand tournament victory was the culmination of a memorable decade for Mohammedan Sporting. They won the Calcutta league for five years in a row in the mid-thirties (a record which remained unsurpassed till East Bengal won the same title for six years in a row from 1970-75). In 1940, they became the first Indian team to win the Triple Crown, Calcutta league, Rovers Cup and Durand Cup. That year, they also became the first team to win the Rovers Cup without conceding a goal. They scored 75 goals in these three competitions with inside left Saboo being the top goal scorer with 24 goals.

Their successes led to frenzied support and Muslims in every city of undivided India were fans of this team. They had an abundance of money and were the first Indian team to play with boots and focus on proper diet and physical fitness for their players. Due to their massive support, Mohammedan Sporting was the first to procure talent from all over India. Full backs Juma Khan and Bachi Khan came from Peshawar and Quetta in the North-West Frontier Province. Goalkeeper Usman Jan was from Delhi and ace scorer, centre forward Rashid from Ajmer in Rajasthan.

Delhi’s love affair with Mohammedan Sporting commenced when they became the first Indian team to win the prestigious Durand tournament on 12th December, 1940. In the final that year, Mohammedan Sporting beat the Royal Warwickshire Regiment 2-1. Centre forward Hafiz Rashid and inside left Saboo scored the goals for the winners. The tournament was held in Delhi that year as due to the 2nd World War, the summer capital of the British Raj did not shift to Simla.

Nearly 100,000 people, many of them standing, witnessed this final in an amphitheatre like stadium (now the site of the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium built as the venue for the 1st Asian Games in 1951). Eminent Muslim politicians flew in from far-off cities like Calcutta, Dacca, Hyderabad and Bhopal for the match and people came in trains from nearby cities. This victory by a team consisting of eleven Muslim players was a massive boost to the Muslim national movement.

So winning the Durand tournament again became a holy grail for this famous Kolkata club. Prize money at the 2013 Durand tournament was very lucrative. Using resources from the Armed Forces, the prize money was raised to ₹25 lakhs for the wining team and ₹15 lakhs for the runners up; phenomenal for a two week tournament.

So generous cash awards, the call of history and the demands of the supporters compelled club President Sultan Ahmed to enter Mohammedan Sporting for the 2013 Durand tournament, even though it finished just a couple of days before the start of the 7th I-League. One part of this gamble paid off, as they won the Durand tournament but Sultan Ahmed and other club officials will be keeping their fingers crossed that they do not pay a heavy price for this victory and the team gains success in future I-league matches.

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