The Telegraph
Sunday , February 16 , 2014
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Rebirth of the Third Force

Naseem Akhtar dives to his right to thwart Didarul Haque’s shot, during the penalty shootout, at the Salt Lake Stadium, on Saturday. Picture by Gautam Bose

Calcutta: It’s in black and white. The re-emergence of the Third Force of Calcutta football.

Long ridiculed as the also-rans, bullied by the arrogant East Bengal and Mohun Bagan and stifled by the fat purse of the Big Two, Mohammedan Sporting came out of the shadows of despair under the glare of the Salt Lake Stadium, on Saturday.

The IFA Shield triumph over Dhanmondi Club in front of the 65,000 crowd would give Mohammedan Sporting the confidence to take on anybody in Indian football. “I did not know we had so many supporters,” Mehrajuddin Wadoo, who won the Best Indian Footballer Award, told The Telegraph after the match.

“This is probably the most significant victory for the club. This club has not won anything worth mentioning since mid-80s. Yes, we won the Durand Cup this season, but it was not that competitive. And here we won a tournament beating a team, which literally toyed with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in their previous matches,” Mehrajuddin said.

After years of being in obscurity, Mohammedan Sporting this year made a team which had the promise of giving others a run for their money. Luciano Sabrosa, Tolgay Ozebe, Penn Orji and Joshimar were roped in as the four foreigners. The petulant Tolgay could not fit into the scheme of things and left. But the other three, despite throwing tantrums whenever they found things not to their liking, have adapted well. “This club has the passion. And I am enjoying my stay here,” Luciano, the defender, said.

But the biggest gain for Mohammedan Sporting was the signing of six players on loan from the IMG, whose IPL-style League failed to take off. All the six were in the first eleven on Saturday. Mehrajuddin, Ishfaq Ahmed, Luis Barreto, Syed Rahim Nabi, Nirmal Chetri and Manish Maithani have been playing exceedingly well ever since they joined Mohammedan Sporting.

“We are playing as a unit and that’s the reason why we got this success. And this triumph will help us in the I-League. At present, we are 10th in the standings, but we have played some games less. Also, we have eight home matches. The way the supporters came today, I am sure if we continue winning there will be more fans turning up to watch us play,” Ishfaq said.

SS Hakim, son of legendary SA Rahim, feels the same. “Look it’s important that teams like Mohammedan Sporting survive. They saw the worse, and I think now the tide has changed. Yes, there’s lot of work to be done. But at least they have won a tournament of the IFA Shield’s stature.

“When Mahindra United died nobody will cried, if teams from Goa die hardly a few will shed tears, but if Mohammedan Sporting close shop, the aspirations of so many people will die with that. Mohammedan Sporting is an institution. I am happy that the Third Force is alive and kicking,” Hakim said from Aurangabad.

The way Mohammedan Sporting fans celebrated at the Stadium, it was as if there was no tomorrow. “As if we have won the World Cup… An amazing feeling,” beamed coach Sanjoy Sen. “It’s for them… For a long time East Bengal and Mohun Bagan grabbed the headlines… Now it’s our turn.”

Agrees Syed Nayeemuddin, who came from Dhaka, where he is coaching Brothers Union, just to watch this match. “This team has the class… I liked what I saw. Mohammedan Sporting’s success is good for Calcutta football and Indian football. This team has such support base. But the fans deserted them as there was hardly any success. Today what I saw it’s overwhelming,” Nayeem, the man under whose captaincy Mohammedan Sporting won the Shield the last time in 1971, said.

Nayeem was right when he was talking about the fan base. During the pre-season practice sessions, 500 to 600 supporters used to turn up just to see the Penn Orjis and Luciano Sabrosas. “Where will you see this?” Dipendu Biswas asked. “Nowhere,” he added.

Mohammedan Sporting’s fan base could be gauged from the Jamshed Nassiri anecdote… “Once, when we had won the Sait Nagjee Trophy, in Hyderabad, in the 80s, the fans celebrated the triumph by pouring biriyani in the hollow of the trophy.”

Well the Shield does not have such a structure, but on Saturday night you could bet that the Mohammedan Sporting fans celebrated with their favourite biriyani.

“I’m already gorging on it,” said Mehrajuddin.