History made at rain-soaked Kanteerava; late Bello header seals title for Mohun Bagan

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AS THE PLAYERS made for their dressing rooms at half-time, Katsumi Yusa stood in the middle and beckoned at his colleagues to join him in an urgent on-pitch conference. As the Bengaluru FC fans cheered their team off the pitch, Mohun Bagan were huddled in the middle with multiple senior players making emphatic points. After a couple of minutes, the huddle broke, and the players walked out; past the East Lower B block, inhabited by their fans who were in a state of gloomy silence.

But Katsumi was going to have none of it. He approached the stand, thumped his chest, held up the badge on his jersey and vehemently urged the supporters to stay positive and hopeful. The crowd rose to a loud roar. Other players joined in this solemnly primal, non-verbal exchange as players and fans made a pact then and there. The next 45 minutes were to live and die for.

The build up to this moment had seen some major twists and turns. As the day heated up for this “grand finale” of the I-League season, the clouds let loose and by the time the players took their positions for the kick-off the Kanteerava pitch had already seen some three hours' worth of incessant rain.

It was the home team coach who made the early moves by leaving Sunil Chhetri on the bench, choosing to go with a young Udanta Singh on the attack. This early gamble almost paid off as pacy Udanta sent in a cross early on that begged for a final touch into the net but found no blue shirt nearby. From here on the game took a physical turn; there were tackles galore from both sides on a pitch that grew more slippery by the minute. Referee Santosh Kumar was rather soft on the fouls and each side got away with a yellow each on the first half (Balwant Singh and Eugeneson Lyngdoh).

It was Mohun Bagan who saw the better chances but failed to seize them. A poor finish from Balwant saw Johnson make a goal-line clearance early in the game. Then in the 40th minute BFC's Shankar Sampingiraj lost the ball at midfield, allowing Sony a sprint forward and a gem of a shot that came off the crossbar. The Haitian winger lay down in despair and the away fans groaned in despair: it was a costly chance to miss, and hitting the crossbar is considered an ill omen in Maidan folklore.

And within moments, it was as if all their fears came true. Bengaluru FC led a counter where Shehnaj had to clear a sharp header from Eugeneson Lyngdoh, resulting in a corner. Lyngdoh took the corner, delivering a curler right in the middle of the penalty box, and John Johnson's head leaped above the jungle of jostling players to meet it. West Block A, the stronghold of the home fans, exploded as the ball brushed the net. Thanks to Johnson's maiden goal of the season, Bengaluru FC were now in the front, heavily tipped to retain the league title.

Although the goal had perhaps come against the run of play, BFC were more than capable of holding on to the lead, perhaps even doubling it. The tense half-time saw Mohun Bagan fans praying in anxiety while Bengaluru FC faithfuls were chanting relentlessly. The mood around the stadium was to stay this way until the last few minutes.

The second half began with a nervy vibe as Pierre Boya came dangerously close, only to shoot the ball just above the bar. Tensions flared in the sidelines too as BFC assistant manager Pradhyum Reddy got into a tiff with the fourth official and was removed from the bench.

Players slipped and fell all over the pitch, often losing possessions early into an offensive. Again it was Mohun Bagan who were pressing the hardest, but a stable Laltuammawia Ralte warded off all attacks and kept BFC in the game.

A big moment came in the 75th minute as Robin Singh broke free of the Mohun Bagan defensive line and charged straight into the penalty box. Having no other option, keeper Shilton Paul charged at the striker. Robin went right down, and appeals for a penalty reverberated across Kanteerava. But Santosh Kumar, with a slight shake of the head, gestured for a goal kick. This sent Ashley Westwood into a storm of fury; had the decision gone the other way it might have sealed the title for the Blues.

The pressure from Bagan grew as the clock ticked past 80 minutes, but the BFC defense seemed to be holding its own. Lalchhuanmawia picked up a yellow for a professional foul and Sony Norde's blinder got blocked by Laltuammawia's lightning-fast reflex. The Mariners' coach Sanjay Sen played his cards replacing Balwant with Jeje and introducing a more aggressive Bikramjit in the midfield replacing Souvik, but the dread was palpable in the heavy evening air: was it too late?

And then Laltuammawia deflected yet another shot and Mohun Bagan got a corner. Sony Norde stepped up to take it. All bodies were thrown into the Bengaluru FC box as the players braced themselves for a last-ditch, do or die scramble.

The wet ball flashed against the dark sky, reflecting the floodlights as it spun like a ballet dancer in the air, curling its way into the midst of twenty eager heads. Everybody tried to push and jump their way nearer to it but one head rose above all others. The contact with the forehead was clinical, and the ball went like a bullet to its game-changing destination.

The East Lower B block erupted as Bello Rasaq ran across the pitch in a hysteric celebration. His colleagues pounced on him as the visiting fans went absolutely mad; rolling in the mud, running around the block, hugging anyone and everyone. The match went on for another anxious few minutes but the festivities had already begun: a 13-year-old wait had come to an end. In an amazing repeat of history, Mohun Bagan had clinched the title on the very last day of the season, thanks to an amazing header from a Nigerian defender. Bello, the hero of the night, was carried off the pitch by his teammates, and the coach, Sanjay Sen, was given celebratory bumps.

Katsumi Yusa was in tears, as were several fans as the team lifted the trophy. It was the club's first I-League title, which, coupled with the 3 National Football League wins, makes it their fourth league title, just one less than Dempo, who got relegated a day earlier.

After receiving the medals and silverware, the players ran towards the away fans' section. They held the trophy up for the fans to see up close, and bowed in unison. Chants of 'Mohun Bagan, Mohun Bagan' filled the air as players and fans shared the euphoria of a historic victory, one that can have far-reaching repercussions for the club at a time of widespread financial crisis among traditional football clubs in this country.

But Sunday night's Kanteerava, with its 21,786 vocal spectators and a grueling photo-finish to the I-League's marathon title race, produced perhaps the best advertisement for Indian football of the decade. It made an emphatic argument for the popularity of club football in India; one that was affirmed by the grand victory parade in Kolkata the next day. It was the best finish to the season Indian football could have hoped for; and a clear indication that with the right kind of marketing, I-League has the potential to see growth by manifolds.  

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