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HARD TIMES: Mumbai FC enter a new phase of hope, possibilities and existential challenges

THE PITIFUL STATE of Indian football, already suffering from financial strife, was made worse by stadium unavailability. A lot of clubs, including the Kolkata giants, had to play in far remote stadiums due to the main arenas being unavailable for multiple reasons. 

But no club has had to face issues with home ground like Mumbai FC. Barely two seasons into their emergence in the top divsion, they were forced not only to leave their home ground but their home city as the renovation project for the Coopearage Stadium ran into legal trouble thanks to some powerful land sharks. From 2010 to 2014, The Essel Group owned club played their matches in faraway Kolhapur and the hopeless Pune, deprived of any opportunity to connect to their core fanbase. As a result, their management decided to run the first team on a stringent budget, aiming to simply survive relegation until the bad phase blew over. And they found a player-turned-coach in Khalid Jamil who was close to the club, understood the situation and was willing to do the dirty work.

Over the last few years Mumbai FC have acquired this reputation of playing a negative, defensive brand of football aimed at getting draws out of tough fixtures. And it reflects in head coach Khalid Jamil's league record; he has managed to end about half the matches in a stalemate. But in their situation, Mumbai FC had few other options. One of the recurring themes in I-League has been clubs spending big money on competent foreign strikers and brute-forcing past the less-monied clubs. Mumbai FC were in no position to do that. So it makes sense that they designed a strategy that directly countered that trend. It wasn't very pleasing to the eye, but then their fans weren't watching.

This is why the last season was so important for them. It saw them return to the Cooperage Stadium after a 5-year exile. They got to play a lot of evening matches in the weekends; something that wasn't an absolute hardship for a potential fan to get through with. And the results were definitely better than expected. 

Their first home game drew a crowd of 2,500; that's about half the capacity of the stadium. Over the rest of the season the number rose and fell, but within a couple of months it became apparent that something was afoot. Fans who were showing up casually started banding together. By mid-April they were coming up with chants and heckling opponent players in unison. It was obvious that the club was slowly growing in popularity and was on the verge of creating a loyal following.

The players, too, had gained good recognition from the fans for their prolonged contributions to the club, especially through the exiled years. The likes of Ashutosh Mehta, Taisuke, Jayesh Rane became fan favourites. And homecoming proved lucky for Mumbai FC; they finished 6th in the I-League 2014-15, the highest in the club's history. They grined out 9 draws out of the 20 matches they played and spoiled the party for many a big club. That's not exactly top-of-the-resume kind of achievement but given Mumbai FC's situation it wasn't bad at all. Because a return to home, a stable season and a visible growth in fan-following meant they had the solid ground underneath their feet to take the next few steps.

As far back as July last year, plans were being made by Mumbai FC's marketing minds to make 2015-16 the first season they came out swinging. They were contemplating more matchday activities, fan outreach and increased engagement with the community. Some of those plans have already come to fruition, including the large-scale grassroot league they are about to start this weekend. 

The transfer business, too, has been impressive. Taisuke is the only foreign player retained from last season. He has been joined by forward Ryuzi Kozawa (Tokyo FC, Gaine Tottori), attacking medio Eric Brown (United SC, Pune FC) and centre-back Son Min-chol (FC Korea, Shillong Lajong). But their best recruits over the summers have been Indians. They roped in experienced players like Arata Izumi, Steven Dias and Sushil Kumar Singh and also attracted fresher blood like Pratik Chaudhuri, Clyde Fernandes, and goalkeeper Pawan Kumar. The squad is new-look and definitely one of the best in the club's history. And also, for the first time in recent years, the centre of gravity in the team seems to have moved from the defence to the midfield. This team can play a game much more attack-oriented.

The community of fans around the club has also evolved to the next level of engagement. They have organized through the internet and even held group meetings to make their own matchday plans and preparations. And all this has happened organically, with no involvement of the club management. Come Sunday, when Mumbai FC will play their first home match of the season against East Bengal, we may see an evolved scene at the Cooperage Stadium where vocal fans with banners and chants fiercely back their local club; something all Indian football fans would love to see.

But of course, we won't actually get to see it. The I-League's broadcasters, who happen to be owned by the same company that owns Mumbai FC, have decided not to show the match. In fact, the original broadcast schedule completely omitted Mumbai FC from it; something that was later rectified. But still Mumbai FC are likely to be one of the least televised clubs in the league this season.

Which is what brings us to the question of the larger Indian football landscape. I-League and ISL are about to be merged. There are indications that the new league will adopt a franchise system. And if that is the case, Mumbai FC may well come into direct conflict with the city's ISL team Mumbai City FC over who gets to play in the new league. And here, Mumbai City obviously have an upper hand, by virtue of being part of the private tournament favoured by IMG-Reliance. And in this context, indifference from the channel owned by their own parent company looks like a bad omen; as if Essel Group are about to give up on Mumbai FC and a fate similar to Pune FC is impending for them.

And this is why doing well this season is absolutely crucial for Mumbai FC. With any luck, the broadcast gaffe was just that -- a mistaken oversight -- and Mumbai FC still have a fighting chance to make themselves a part of the new league that is about to be created. But in order to make a case for themselves, this must be a season for growth for them. They must play a better brand of football, attract more people to the ground and finish higher up in the table. They must become a force to reckon with in Indian football; a club that their owners and sponsors can back on.

So far, the conditions are right. The challenge for the club now is to go out there and have their best season ever. With the squad they have, they may not exactly look like title contenders, but they can certainly aim for top four. What's to be seen is whether or not Khalid Jamil and his boys can deliver on the pitch.  

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