THE INDIAN FOOTBALL transfer window almost never disappoints in terms of surprise moves. And if anyone thought there was to be an exception this time, they are already being proven wrong.
East Bengal, who made a slow and steady start by signing up young Indian players with long term prospects, have played their first major card and it has sent shockwaves across the Indian football community. The player who scored the goal that won the I-League for Mohun Bagan – Bello Oladimeji Rasaq – has signed for East Bengal.
In an article published by Anandabazar Patrika, it has been revealed that Bello Rasaq has joined the Red and Gold brigade after feeling neglected by Mohun Bagan officials who were too busy celebrating the league victory. While Sony Norde was offered a 3 year bumper deal worth 6.6 crore, Bagan officials were unable to meet Bello's wish for a raise. Bello, who won the award of Best Defender in the recently concluded I-League, felt slighted, and seeing an honest effort by East Bengal officials to sign him, he consented.
It was on Wednesday evening that the first call came to Bello. He met two East Bengal officials around 9 pm on the same evening, in a restaurant beside the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. There they talked for hours, after which they went to the house of East Bengal's Football Secretary Santosh Bhattacharya. After a long discussion, the contract was signed right there, with the clock showing around 1:30 am.
In the newspaper report both Bello and his new club's representatives were tight-lipped about the contract amount. All Bello said was that reports of him demanding Rs 1 crore are false, and he joined East Bengal for much less than that. However, sources on the inside put the contract amount around Rs 85 lakhs, plus perks. Mohun Bagan, it is reported, were ready to offer him Rs 75 lakhs. Bello's previous season's contract with Mohun Bagan was worth Rs 30 lakhs.
Bello has played in India for more than a decade but it's for the first time he has risen to prominence in top division. The 30 year old Nigerian defender, whose last major title was winning the IFA Shield with United Sports Club in 2012, has waited a long time for this, and now that he has gotten the chance, hardly anyone can grudge him for cashing in. Even if it's via a move from Mohun Bagan to East Bengal. Moving directly between these arch rival Kolkata clubs is something of a taboo, but many prominent players have done it over the years, and found success. “I'm a professional,” Bello was quoted saying. “Mohun Bagan were stalling and East Bengal were earnest.”
Although this news is bound to take fans and critics alike by surprise, donning the Red and Gold shirt never been far from Bello's mind. “I have wanted to play for East Bengal ever since I came to Kolkata,” he said.
For Mohun Bagan, this is a case of history repeating itself. In 2002, they won the National Football League thanks to a goal scored in the last match of the season, headed in by another Nigerian defender named Abdul Saliu. Afterwards, he complained of being mistreated by Mohun Bagan officials, and reportedly left the ground in tears when he was not even called up on stage during the felicitation. While Bello has certainly not been treated that badly, whatever officials have done has obviously not been enough.
This is a statement of intent from East Bengal. One can say they have drawn the season's first blood. They have always come back with a big push for the league title every time Mohun Bagan have won it, and in the last two of such occasions, they succeeded.
It is hard to tell if Mohun Bagan officials were always planning to let Rasaq leave. There have been rumours flying around that Chennaiyin FC's star charismatic French defender from the first ISL, Bernard Mendy, who is playing in Greek first division club AEL Limassol right now, may be in talks with the Green and Maroon officials. But if they indeed offered Rs 65 lakhs to Rasaq, it shows a real effort on their part to hold onto him. There is pressure on Bagan officials to build an improved team next season, with the club scheduled to play in the Asian Champions League qualifiers come February.
It has been merely a week since the last season got over and the transfer market has already heated up more than anyone could have expected. The level of competition among I-League clubs is on the rise and the race to secure the services of the best players, too, is now more fierce than ever. As the summer weeks go by we are bound to see more such shock moves. Days after a magical conclusion to the title race at Kanteerava, the race to the crown of Champions of India has already begun.