IT HAS BEEN YEARS since Mohammedan Sporting have played a match at their own home ground. Even a few months ago, this ground, with its rusty old iron galleries and fragile, half-broken fences resembled a ghostly, long-abandoned arena.
Over the last few seasons, Mohammedan Sporting, like other Kolkata clubs, played their I-League and CFL matches at the Salt Lake Stadium, Barasat or Kalyani. Even though they found relative success in recent times, winning the Durand Cup and IFA Shield, their fate was going downhill; relegated from the I-League, suffering due to lack of sponsors and funding, on the brink of folding.
When the news broke of the imminent collapse of the illustrious club that has been an integral part of the Indian football landscape for more than a century, individuals, groups and corporates came forward to help with its revival.
And that's what made today's match special: Mohammedan, once days away from closing down their football team, were now back with a new sponsor, playing on their own fabled ground after years. It represented a collective victory for people who care about Indian football and have been active in making sure it survives and flourishes. And the spirit of this triumph found reflection in the festive atmosphere at the ground, with fans showing up in thousands dressed in club colours, carrying flags, filling up the rusty old stands on a Wednesday afternoon.
Fresh off a hard-earned draw against Mohun Bagan with just 10 men, the Black-and-Whites were facing a decidedly lesser challenge against Kalighat Milan Sangha. But they started cautiously, watchful not to screw it up on their special occasion. Their grip on the match got an early boost when Dipankar's shot hit Kalighat defender Godswill in the hand, inside the penalty box.
As Mumtaz Akhtar converted from the spot, the game became more physical as Kalighat players fought tooth and nail to get back into the game. They were still seeing enough of the ball, and their defence was relatively solid (they had 50% possession at halftime) but it was at the final third that all their efforts fell to pieces. The first half ended with Mohammedan leading 1-0.
At the very beginning of the second period, Mohammedan got a free kick a few meters outside the Kalighat penalty box. A number of players lined up near the ball. As Bernard started to run in to take the kick, Mumtaz Akhtar pushed him away. They started shoving each other, and even Dipankar Das got involved in the pushing around. As everyone in the ground, including Kalighat players, stared dumbfounded at the drama unfolding, Bikramjit Singh ran in and took the free kick. The Kalighat keeper fisted the ball away, and it fell near Dipankar Das, who ran up and made a clean finish. Turns out, the pushing and shoving was a diversion tactic Mohammedan players have been practicing for a month. And it paid off. They were 2-0 ahead.
Kalighat got a couple of chances to strike back. Arijit Bagui had a header on target towards the end that was dutifully collected by Mohammedan custodian Ishant. But in the end the Mohammedan defence remained resolute and earned their second clean sheet in as many matches. This was the first win for Mohammedan Sporting in their current CFL campaing, while Kalighat suffered their second defeat on the trot. The assembled fans gave their team a standing ovation as they walked off the pitch, with Dolphin Bernard being declared the Man of the Match for his efforts.
The competition is at an early stage and Mohammedan Sporting are hardly being considered as title race material. But their campaign has started on the right note, and their squad has shown a level of understanding rare in Kolkata football this early in the season. Their pre-season efforts seem to be paying off, and if they manage to hold their own against East Bengal on 23rd August, they may well be deep in the race for the CFL title, or at least have a significant impact on deciding whoever comes out as the eventual champion.