Mohammedan Sporting was undoubtedly the most successful Indian club side in the pre-Independence era. Between 1934 and 1947, they won seven Calcutta League titles (five of them in a row), three IFA Shields, one Rovers Cup and a Durand Cup crown. That Durand success came in 1940 but despite three more final appearances, the black and whites didn’t win Asia’s oldest cup competition for another 73 years.
In fact, prior to Thursday’s Durand Cup final against ONGC, the Kolkata giants hadn’t won a national-level major trophy since the Rovers Cup success in 1987. The 26-year wait for some major silverware and almost an eight-decade wait for Durand Cup success finally came to an end, following a 2-1 win over ONGC at Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium.
The timing of Mohammedan Sporting’s second Durand Cup title couldn’t have been better, as it came just ahead of their return to the I-League after four years. The silverware is a major boost for everybody associated with Mohammedan Sporting.
Firstly, the club officials must be glad that they have a trophy to show for their heavy investment in the summer. Secondly, coach Moshood Bola Abdulaziz can now stake a claim for a permanent contract and last but not the least, the success should also encourage the enormous fan base of Mohammedan Sporting to regularly attend their favourite club’s I-League games. For a competition that is mostly played in front of empty stadiums, potential big turnouts for Mohammedan Sporting’s home games will be a welcome change for the country’s domestic league.
However, the challenge for Moshood, the players and the club officials will be to not get carried away and have unrealistic expectations from this team. Mohammedan Sporting certainly deserves to enjoy this moment as a trophy after almost three decades should be greeted with wild celebrations (which was the case when Manchester City won their first English league title after 34 years in 2012).
But no one associated with Mohammedan Sporting should now have the impression that their club is ready to challenge for the I-League title and become a dominant force in Indian football again. Going by their performance in the Durand Cup final and overall strength of the squad, anything above a mid-table finish in the I-League will be a great achievement.
Mohammedan Sporting possibly have one of the best set of foreigners (Luciano Sobrosa, Penn Orji, Tolgay Ozbey and Josimar) in this season’s I-League, largely due to the fact that all four of their outstation players have plenty of experience in Indian football. But unfortunately that is where there quality ends.
The 122-year-old club lack local quality in almost every department; they also lack I-League experience in some areas. For starters, they lack a decent goalkeeper as Somnath Khara has never been a first choice goalkeeper for a top I-League club, and his error in the final was a reminder that he is a liability. While the remaining custodians lack sufficient experience in the top flight.
Another area of concern is central midfield with coach Moshood even lamenting the fact that he has too many wide players and hardly any central midfielders. There are rumours that the Kolkata club could loan some players from IMG-Reliance once the deadlock with I-League clubs is resolved. But as of now, Mohammedan Sporting are a team who are over-dependent on their foreigners and are otherwise an ordinary and inexperienced side.
Their lack of quality was exposed in the Durand Cup final, where only two foreigners were allowed in the first eleven. For long periods in the summit clash, Mohammedan Sporting were outplayed by a team that won’t even feature in the I-League.
Although nothing can be taken away from Mohammedan Sporting’s triumph, the competitiveness of this year’s Durand Cup can be questioned as Pune FC were the only other I-League club that took part. And even they were under strength as they took a squad mostly consisting of academy players while none of their foreigners or head coach Mike Snoei made the trip to New Delhi.
Amidst the Durand Cup celebrations, the injury to Brazilian central defender Luciano will be a major concern for Mohammedan Sporting and his absence could be felt as early as the I-League first round against Pune FC on Saturday.
It shouldn’t be all doom and gloom due to the lack of overall quality in the squad but it should act as a reminder for Mohammedan Sporting that despite the Durand Cup success, a long and difficult season awaits them in the I-League, where the competition will be much higher.
Mohammedan Sporting also has a lot of work to do off the pitch in order to meet the AFC requirements and pass the national club licensing test next year. So while many would see the Durand Cup title as a springboard for continued success at the club, it should actually be used as an inspiration to rebuild this prestigious club’s status in the top flight both on and off the pitch.