|Mohun Bagan’s Jose Ramirez Barreto (top) stretches with teammates during practice while Mohammedan Sporting coach Shankar Moitra discusses a point with Rahim Nabi as two foreigners, Chidi Edeh (extreme left) and Okli Odafa as well as deposed captain Dipendu Biswas and Madhab Das, look on on Thursday. Pictures by Pabitra Das and Santosh Ghosh
Calcutta: It promises to be a battle of contrasting ambitions when three-time champions Mohun Bagan and debutants Mohammedan Sporting kick off the eighth edition of the National Football League (NFL) at Salt Lake Stadium on Friday.
For Mohun Bagan, the most successful team in the country’s premier football tournament, the stage is perfectly set to silence the critics. The continuous saga of infighting and bickering among officials is still on, but a sense of reinvigoration seems to have taken the foreground.
If there was anything to go by the match-eve practice session on Thursday morning, the green-and-maroon brigade has left the doldrums far behind and are extremely focussed on the battles ahead.
“We are ready for Mohammedan Sporting,” proclaimed coach Aloke Mukherjee. “The first match of a marathon league is always crucial. So the pressure factor is there… But we have set our target and will go accordingly,” he added.
Aloke, under whom the team has only managed the IFA Shield this season, however, spelt out his version of the champions’ recipe.
“We are aiming at 22 points from the first leg. Another 20 point from the second leg will be good enough for any team to lay claims on the trophy,” the Mohun Bagan coach said, his words exuding confidence of a man who looks very much in the ‘zone’.
Their opponents, Mohammedan Sporting, also look upbeat, having made the apex club tournament in Indian football. But technical adviser P.K. Banerjee had a word of caution after the match-eve practice. “A top-8 finish is what we should be aiming at. We must have to be guided and guarded by reality. I know there will be tremendous expectation among the supporters since this is going to be our debut season, but we should not be burdened by too much of it,” warned the legend.
That the debutants are keen to make an impression in the NFL could be gathered from a number of steps taken by the club before the opener. Their No. 1 striker Dipendu Biswas has been offloaded from the burden of captaincy with his armband going to defender Hossain Mustafi. The players have also been barred from using mobile phones from a day before the match in a move aiming at injecting more discipline and focus.
Added to this the arrival of Rupa White as a co-sponsor and the promise of roping Coke as the other from next year.
Nigerian Chidi Edeh has been taken on loan from first division group A outfit, City AC, and registered as third foreigner after two other Nigerians — Okali Odafa and John Ugwu. Incidentally, Ugwu has also been named the team’s vice captain for the NFL. According to club officials, a fourth foreigner — may be an Ivory Coast striker — will be decided soon.
If all this leads to the necessary preparation for Mohammedan Sporting, their rivals are visibly elated at the idea of Ashim Biswas’ return to action and join Jose Ramirez Barreto upfront.
“Playing the NFL is not new for me (he’s represented Tollygunge Agragami last season). But when you wear a Mohun Bagan jersey the feeling is entirely different,” he said.
“This is a platform I have been looking at. I’ll have a great support in Barreto and I want to prove myself after my return from injury… Well, I’m eager to take the field,” he added.
The NFL is also eager to take off on such determined and promising note, that’s for sure.