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Last game of a lost season

Mohun Bagan players during a training session, at the club ground, on Saturday

Calcutta: When you are on the last page of a book and realise that it wasn’t a good read, you don’t really throw it away in the dustbin. More often than not, it too gets a place among your favourites on the bookshelf.

On Saturday, one wondered whether Karim Bencharifa, coach of McDowell Mohun Bagan, had a similar feeling, while monitoring the players at practice for one last time, ahead of the club’s final I-League match, against Lajong FC.

It’s not official yet, but it’s almost certain that Karim’s status at Bagan has changed from a coach to an outgoing coach. The almost one-and-a-half year stint, his second at the club, hasn’t been a glorious one. The century-old club had a trophy-less season, failing to quench the thirst of its millions of fans.

Languishing at the 11th position among 13 teams with just 25 points from 23 matches, the only word that comes to mind to describe the season for Bagan is disappointing. But that’s not how it looked at practice on Saturday.

The players had a cheerful stride. Karim had a smile on his face, not an iota of disappointment from a mentally draining season, not a muscle that appeared dehydrated despite the scorching sun. At the end of practice, Karim admitted that it wasn’t a great season, but insisted that there are positives to be counted upon. His words for Mohun Bagan didn’t have the eloquence of champions, but it didn’t have the bitterness of failure either.

It’s a record that Karim would certainly not rank among his best, but still, he carries enough fondness within himself about the experience at Bagan to afford a smile on his penultimate day as the coach.

While the players enjoyed themselves having fun at each others’ expense, one wondered if the rumours doing the rounds about a mini revolt over non-payment of fees were true. There were whispers which said that the players didn’t want to practice on Saturday as they have not been getting their money. One couldn’t confirm if it was true, but it was, one has to admit that the Bagan players, most of them young and inexperienced who have been tutored patiently by the Moroccan coach throughout the year, have matured.

They masked dissatisfaction, if there was any, with masks of professionalism. At the fag end of the season, such maturity may be deemed to have arrived a little late, but like they say, better late than never. Who knows, this little thing may make all the difference next year. Karim may not be there at the helm, but wherever he would be, he would be proud to see that the pillars of probable success were built on the so-called failures during his time.

Lajong, currently fifth on the points table, are eyeing a top-four finish. Bagan, with a win, may climb a couple of rungs, but it still won’t take them to a respectable position. While it has been Lajong’s best season, for Bagan, it has been one of their worst. The match will be played in the backdrop of such contrasts. Hope and hopelessness will be woven into a whole at the Salt Lake Stadium, on Sunday evening.

There will be no Okolie Odafa and Echezona Aniyieche for Bagan. The former has been released, the latter is serving a suspension. But such things will perhaps not matter for Bagan or Karim. Yes, it will be the last match for both. But somehow, it may also be the first step for the club and the coach towards a better future. Good luck to both.