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Bade Mian out of chota league
- Mohammedan Sporting look into coffers, maximum pay hike 20 per cent

Calcutta: The Kalka Mail moved into the platform at Howrah Station at 9am Thursday, but they had been waiting since 6am. Thousands of them, carrying garlands, bouquets, flags, best wishes, and if nothing else, at least great big smiles on their faces.

Nobody waited for the train to stop. Coach No. S4, just a little to the engine’s rear, was flooded with supporters of Mohammedan Sporting. They were shouting in joy, they were garlanding the players from the windows, they were lifting them up on shoulders, on sheer backs, on an ebullient emotion, to be specific.

It is an old club, full, yet, with the aura of age and legends, but this was the first graduation to the National Football League, and all the hurt, the pain, the frustrations of decades of mismanagement were melting away.

“I just could not believe my eyes… so many people,” said Syed Rahim Nabi, one of the junior stars (he is barely 20), feeling the star-singe. “I almost lost my hand luggage.”

Dipendu Biswas, the big star of the club, was finding it tough too, to believe his eyes. Celebration isn’t a new thing to him, having been with winning sides in East Bengal and Mohun Bagan earlier. But this was different feeling, a bigger-than-life emotion. “I was moved,” he said.

The players were taken to a nearby hotel for an early lunch before they proceeded home.

The basic reason for this euphoria is more than just a National League entry. It is a question of the survival of the club, or, as secretary Sultan Ahmed so emphatically said this afternoon, “a return to the tri-polar domination in the Calcutta Maidan, a third force that will keep in control the commercial two other (meaning Mohun Bagan and East Bengal).” Those are the brand new ambitions of a re-fledgling organisation.

Coach Mohammed Habeeb isn’t in the city yet, taking a well-deserved break at home in Hyderabad. “It’s been a long time since I had been home,” said Habeeb to The Telegraph over phone from Hyderabad. “I need this rest. My! What a tension-prone two months! Believe me, I have played soccer in the Maidan for 18 years, I have received so many trophies, experienced so much, but never have I been in so much tension! Just thinking of the match versus State Bank of Travancore (SBT) gives me the shivers. The fact that we came back — and later we could really have scored at will — was a commentary on the sheer resolve of the players, their motivation.”

Talking of motivation, though, this was one of the rather delicate subjects for Biswas. “You see, having been in League winning-sides before, having seen and shared the spotlight, I was a trifle wary about what should be my motivation.” But when the league loomed near, and when Biswas saw that his somewhat flagging career is at the brink of another possible jump, he toned up his act and went headlong, in.

The other factor was, of course, Habeeb Sir, once the Maidan’s Bade Mian. Right from the Tata Football Academy years, to the current hurly-burly of the National League; from they as kids and now as ‘seniors’ in a team, so to say, Sir has not changed. “He is one of our main reasons for fighting on,” said Biswas. “It is for him that we have come the distance that we have.” That’s as good an obeisance that any disciple can pay to any guru.

“You see, when I heard that I was not included among the 46 AIFF probables for the national team, it broke my heart,” said Biswas. “I asked around and they said I wasn’t in because the federation wanted players who have been playing in the National League and players who have been observed by national coach Stephen Constantine. But National League or not, I was performing, I was scoring…”

Syed Rahim Nabi has not been in any big time show and he is enjoying it. He is in a bit of a spot, now, though, because money is a problem at home. “You must understand that we have a big family (seven brothers and a sister)… and all decisions regarding my future are so important that everyone sits down to take a decision. I will have to be able to feed those I do,” says Nabi, sounding way more mature than his age would suggest.

The NFL platform is an important one, soccer-wise. It is more important financially. The club, so long lean in the absence of registered members, is suddenly seeing a surge in membership renewal, confirmed secretary Ahmed (whose panel swept Friday’s elections with little or no change and nary an opposition) and “we have assigned a London company — FMM International — the responsibility of scouring for a sponsor for the club. The company assures us that something will be available in the next couple of months.”

Therein comes the question of the players’ aspirations. Having taken the club to the premier league, some now are getting good offers from different NFL clubs, including the Big Two of the city. Looking ahead to the money market, their personal careers and the family, there is this dilemma that the club must come forward to solve.

“Look, I understand money is important, but one must also understand our financial limitations,” said Ahmed. “We will sit down with this May 10 and we will make a decision, but I can say for sure that we can go upto a maximum of a 20 percent increase in pay. If a player wants to leave after that, he is welcome to. We can’t stop him.”

Which brings one to the last issue, an issue of honour and pride. As Habeeb said: “It was the great respect that I have received in this club, that has kept me going. Also the respect that I received from the players is invaluable.”

That is a unique USP for a club.

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