I-League finale: Gokulam Kerala FC and Mohammedan Sporting eye a first
For the second time in as many weeks, a football theatre will come alive as teams from Bengal and Kerala duel for a prize under the lights. The first one didn’t go right for Bengal who lost their nerve in the shootout while Kerala kept theirs to win the Santosh Trophy in Manjeri. There will be no tie-breakers on Saturday at Salt Lake stadium but at the end of added time, either Gokulam Kerala FC (GKFC) or Mohammedan Sporting will have scripted an I-League first.
Should GKFC keep the title — they can do that with a draw—they will be the first to do that in the 15-year-old competition. Else history will be written in black and white with Mohammedan Sporting winning their first all-India league, 25 years after it replaced centuries-old invitational tournaments as the marker for excellence. In that time, Mohun Bagan (1997-98) and East Bengal (2002-03; 2003-04) have won National Football League titles at home. Can Mohammedan Sporting do that in the competition that succeeded NFL in 2007?
How incredible that would be can be gauged by the fact that for most of the time, the 131-year-old Mohammedan Sporting have usually fought basement battles and lost. I-League isn’t what it was since ISL got top billing in 2019-20 but this is the first time Mohammedan Sporting are in the first division for two successive seasons. Back after seven seasons last term and after getting a new investor, Mohammedan Sporting finished sixth. This season, they banded together in June, bonded in a hotel and started began under Russian coach Andrey Chernyshov.
A UEFA pro licence holder, the former defender had stints at Dynamo Moscow, Spartak Moscow and Rubin Kazan as player and has coached the Russian under-21 team. Dipendu Biswas, the former international striker who is the club’s football secretary, said he couldn’t remember when they hadn’t sacked a coach mid-season. They are planning to keep the phlegmatic Chernyshov for two more seasons, he said.
Under Chernyshov, Mohammedan Sporting won the Kolkata league for the first time since 1981 after being runners-up in the Durand Cup. “Then, the players and I didn’t know each other very well,” he said of the Durand Cup loss to FC Goa. “Step by step we built a team,” he said. Now they are 90 minutes and some away being the second Kolkata club after Mohun Bagan to win the I-League. In front of some 37000 fans, which is the number of free tickets they have been allowed in the time of Covid-19. If the queue in front of the club on Thursday was any indication, demand has outstripped supply.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. With new players, many of them from the reserve team, GKFC had continued on an unbeaten run that began in March 2021 and stretched it to an I-League record 21 games. They were one point away from sealing the deal in the penultimate round, the 17th, and this inconsequential match would have been in Naihati, some 45 km away. They faltered, losing 1-3 to Sreenidi Deccan. “We focussed too much on the referee,” said GKFC’s coach Vincenzo Alberto Annese on Friday. The Italian was referring to a disallowed goal and GKFC being down to 10 on Tuesday. Shown the red card in the second half GKFC captain Sharif Mukhammad of Afghanistan is suspended for Saturday’s game.
That defeat meant for the sixth time in the last eight seasons, the I-League would go down to the wire. Shorn of spin and because India players don’t feature anymore and neither to Bengaluru FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, the competition, paused for two months due to a spike in Covid-19 cases, had gone under the radar. But as shown by the triumph of Aizawl FC (2016-17), Minerva Punjab next season when four teams had a chance going into the final day, Chennai City in 2018-19 when they edged out East Bengal in the last round and last term when GKFC, TRAU and Churchill Brothers could all have won, the trend of coming alive at the end endures. Like in 2014-15, when Bengaluru FC hosted Mohun Bagan and lost, this last day show will be a ‘final’.
“Gokulam were so far away, six points, and some people told us we had no chance. But we believed,” said Chernyshov. Mohammedan Sporting beat Rajasthan United 2-0 and were on the bus to their hotel from the stadium in Kalyani, nearly 48km away, when GKFC imploded. “This is football,” Chernyshov said. Talk to anyone at the club and it won’t seem GKFC need only a point. For Mohammedan Sporting winning isn’t the most important thing, it is the only thing.
GKFC know how to deal with difficult games. Last season, they were trailing to TRAU on judgment day before winning 4-1. Against Roundglass Punjab earlier, they were 1-3 down but won 4-3. GKFC have won the Durand Cup in Kolkata beating East Bengal and Mohun Bagan en route at Salt Lake stadium and Kerala have tamed Bengal in a Santosh Trophy final in 2018 so this isn’t a fortress that can’t be breached. “We will play to win,” said Annese.
Mohammedan Sporting have more experienced players but we have scored more goals (42) than any other team, he said. At 33, Mohammedan Sporting are second. GKFC have also conceded the fewest, 14, “and three of them came the other day,” Annese said.
Used to closed-door games and sparse crowd for most season, terraces throbbing with excitement can be a double-edged sword for the hosts too, said their coach. “Some players can be nervous. They will have to stay strong.” Annese could have been speaking for both teams when he said: “The heart is more important in such games.”
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