IT IS AS IF Bello’s departure had opened the floodgates.
There were rumours all around that other players were also about to abandon the club that had only days ago become the Champions of India.
After a tense few days, a meeting headed by the club’s financial secretary Debashish Dutta saw most grievances addressed and differences ironed out and matters resolved. Within a couple of hours of speaking face to face and over telephone, Mohun Bagan made sure two of their star foreigners, Sony Norde and Katsumi Yusa, stayed at Mohun Bagan.
It was a major statement of stability from the Green and Maroons, for whom things started to go downhill just two days after winning the I-League and bringing the trophy home to an unprecedented joyous welcome from the fans. The very next day, veteran Cameroonian striker Pierre Boya vowed not to play for the club again, citing selfish behaviour from the officials. Soon after, Nigerian defender Bello Rasaq, who scored the last minute goal at Sree Kanteerava Stadium that ensured their league victory, shocked everyone by signing for Mohun Bagan’s arch rivals East Bengal.
A sense of panic descended over the fans as the rumour mill linked almost every major Mohun Bagan player with other clubs. And many clubs, in fact, entered the fray to poach the Bagan players. Katsumi Yusa was compelled to sit and consider a serious offer from Bharat FC, while Sony Norde’s previous club, Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi from Dhaka, entered the fray to reclaim him. To make matters worse, even the Mohun Bagan coach became a hot subject of transfer gossip. At one point he was being considered the front-runner in the race to become the next East Bengal coach.
The signs were not looking good either. Mohun Bagan have been dealing with a financial crisis ever since their main sponsor McDowell got tangled in a mess of litigations over its ownership. The legal battle froze the transfer of sponsorship money to the club, and for months Mohun Bagan could not afford to pay salaries to their players and staff. There was an extra barrage of criticism when some of the officials left on holidays right after the league got over, leaving the team building process seemingly unattended. Things came to a head when Sanjay Sen publicly criticized the officials for letting Bello Rasaq depart. “This is a result of the officials’ incompetency,” he said defiantly at a social function.
In order to get things under control the officials extended the contracts of many Indian players who left their mark in the recently concluded season, including Souvik Chakraborty, Pritam Kotal, Pratik Chaudhuri, Souvik Ghosh, Aadarsh Tamang and goalkeepers Shilton Paul and Debjit Majumdar. But it wasn’t enough. The team was symbolized by its star players and if they left it would break the team spirit that was palpable in the Bagan dressing room throughout the season.
So the officials went on the offensive to hold onto their star assets. Sony was offered a record 3-year deal worth 6.6 crore, Katsumi got an improved offer, and so did coach Sanjay Sen and his staff. It took time and a lot of back-and-forth, but resolution drew nearer as it became obvious to everyone involved that the core of the Mohun Bagan team was going to remain intact and there was positive intent to make a dent in the Asian level next season.
The first good news to come out of that meeting was that Sanjay Sen had signed a new one-year contract with the club. Speaking to the media, the coach went back on what he said about Bello Rasaq’s departure. “He kept lying to us,” Sen said about Bello. “Even after signing for East Bengal he kept saying he wanted to stay at Mohun Bagan. He betrayed us.”
Soon it was announced that Bagan’s fan-favourite star striker Sony Norde had agreed to the terms of a new 2-year contract. The next day, it was the Japanese medio Katsumi Yusa who said yes to a 2-year contract extension.
The coach has given a list of 30 players to club officials from which to strengthen the team and there are many names being discussed as potential replacements for Boya and Bello. Names that have been linked with a potential move to Mohun Bagan so far include Bernard Mendy who played for Chennaiyin FC in last year’s ISL, Sony Norde’s old Dhanmondi colleague Wedson Anselme, Georgie Wilson Welcome, a striker from Honduras who plays for Siam Navy in the Thai Premier League and Brazilian youngster Lucas Gaucho, who has played in the Sao Paulo senior team, and currently plies his trade at Iranian club Al-Shabab. These are all high profile names and indicate a battle plan being brewed for the Asian Champions League qualifiers coming up next February.
Even the financial crisis seems to be on its way out. The players have been paid, money due from McDowell is reportedly about to be cleared and there is talks of a new co-sponsor coming on board very soon. It seems the old, enduring Kolkata club has weathered the stormy last few days and is now well on track to set itself up for a serious title defence come next season.