Mohammedan SC fans queue for Durand Cup final tickets, revival hopes for clubOctober 3, 2021
The demand for tickets has reached such frenzied levels that Dipendu Biswas has to put his phone on silent mode and shove it to one corner of his office. But if the Mohammedan Sporting football secretary thought that would give him some respite, he’s mistaken. Thousands gathered outside the club’s tent in Kolkata on a rainy Friday afternoon to snap up tickets for Sunday’s Durand Cup final against FC Goa.
“We gave two tickets each to a couple of thousand people who came on Thursday,” Biswas says. “Today (Friday), more than 3,000 people are already waiting outside and we haven’t even started distributing tickets.”
The former India forward isn’t complaining; if anything, he sounds relaxed and joyful. For once, the celebratory chaos is at Sporting’s tent and not at their traditional rivals’, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
Seven years ago, a scenario like this seemed improbable. Mohammedan Sporting, the OG ‘Big Three’ of Indian football along with Bagan and East Bengal, were in such a dire situation financially that they had to disband their first team. Eulogies were written about the club romanticised for the idea it represented and the kind of football it once played.
The reason for their decline was the same as that for many other legacy clubs – mismanagement and failure to adapt, which got accentuated amidst the churning of India’s domestic structure in the last decade.
Now, a team of young administrators comprising former footballers and even a doctor is trying to set the house in order. “We have focused on doing a lot of little things right,” says Taha Ahmed, the club’s assistant general secretary.
For Ahmed, this is a personal cause as much as professional. His father, Sultan, was at the helm of the club for decades and the driving force behind it. After he died in 2017, aged 64, Ahmed Jr – an orthopaedic surgeon by profession – moved from Delhi to Kolkata and began the rebuilding process.
“We got an investor who understands our vision. We have a coach from Russia on a long-term, three-year contract. Then, instead of administrators signing players, which happened earlier, we have let the coach build the team the way he wants,” Ahmed, 33, says. Biswas adds that a ‘world-class’ cafeteria is being constructed on the club’s premises. “It’s about doing things in a right, professional manner,” he says.
These, of course, are some of the things that are taken for granted in football. The fact that Sporting have started to do them only now shows how far they’ve been left behind; a mighty fall for a club formed in 1891, a decade before the Muslim League came into existence, that was once a pioneer in so many ways.
In 1933, when Kolkata’s major clubs played barefoot, Sporting’s players wore boots for the first time in a match so they could adapt and play better in the rain. The club did away with another tradition of Kolkata football by recruiting players from outside Bengal, thus transforming itself from being the face of Bengali Muslims to becoming the first pan-India club in a real sense.
“Even its fan base, I haven’t seen a team that was so well supported in all corners of the country,” Biswas, who has also played for Bagan and East Bengal, says. “I remember once after we lost the Federation Cup final against Mahindra United (in 2003), a fan was so heartbroken that he jumped from the upper tier of the stadium. I haven’t seen anything like that in Indian football.”
During their peak, stadium gates would have to be closed hours before kick-off to prevent overcrowding wherever Sporting went to play. Thousands swayed to the tunes of legendary footballers like Iran’s Majid Bishkar, who played for the ‘Black Panthers’. In Mumbai, the late thespian Dilip Kumar often popped in to watch them, and the great Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote poetry to honour the team.