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Bagan face the unknown

Calcutta: They say the exotic charm of the Maldivian atolls coexists with an uncanny system of fanditha.

Derived from a rather sanctified term — pundit — fanditha has drawn on Indian Ocean traditions over the years to come to associate itself with the practice of black magic and superstition. And soccer, being the biggest passion in the islanders’ life, predictably, does not exist outside the ritual’s orbit. Staunch supporters of football clubs in the Maldives often indulge in fanditha against their rivals as a means to success.

On Wednesday, during the AFC Champions League second round qualifier against Mohun Bagan, it isn’t certain if fans back in the Maldives will need such methods to overcome their Indian opponents. In fact, Abdula Shibau, the club’s football manager, said Tuesday that they would deal with Mohun Bagan “in an orthodox way, through the game of football.”

For Mohun Bagan coach Subrata Bhattacharya, all this is a “surprise package” from their guests. “I heard Senegal fans had indulged in such practices during the World Cup. But if this is a really effective tool to beat your opponents Senegal would have been World Cup champions. However, this is against the laws of the game and we’ll definitely keep a tab on such activities at the stadium tomorrow,” Subrata told The Telegraph.

He, though, has his own answer — more sagacious and telling — to this intimidation. Having the dream pair of Jose Ramirez Barreto and Bhaichung Bhutia — arguably the most lethal attack in Indian club football of late — at his disposal, means he has little to fear now.

And there you have it — a battle of fanditha and fantasy, of surprise and sensation, to be fought in two different ways to stay in contention for the richest prize in the Asian club football.

“Valencia are unknown to me and an unknown enemy is always dangerous. Therefore, we’ll start off cautiously and want to see how Valencia respond. If they are proved to be in the mould of Saunders, we’ll attack at the outset. If they are proved to be a hard nut to crack, our strategy will accordingly be changed. But winning by a big margin will be the top priority,” the Mohun Bagan coach said.

Plain talking, that, devoid of his customary braggadocio. Wednesday’s match, in more than one way, is bound to shape Subrata’s future, following the club’s decision to showcause him for criticising an official. But there is also this fear of a graver peril within — his strategic willingness for a devil’s bargain.

Bhaichung and his national teammates — Rajat Ghosh Dastidar, Satish Bharti and Rennedy Singh — are set to figure in the playing XI, just hours after their touch-down in the city from Busan via Hong Kong and New Delhi.

“Their (the stars’) very presence will be a big confidence-booster for the entire team,” he said, his words also finding an ally in Basudeb Mondal and Barreto. For Valencia’s Slovak coach, Rastislav Vancur, the goal is simple. “We’ll fight hard and try to avoid defeat,” he said.

There is one foreigner in the team — midfielder Yusuf Monsuru Ademola of Nigeria. Captain Mohamed Nizam and current top-scorer in Maldivian league, Ali Shiham are the other players to watch.

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