“Bajegi seeti, udega ball, Come on India, let’s Football”… echoes Star Sports’ video ad on the upcoming big-money extravaganza that is the Hero Indian Super League.
After having previously touched cricket, badminton and kabaddi, the franchise-based league in India visits the domain of football, a sport where interest levels in the country have zoomed considerably in the last decade.
With eight teams in the fray and with an array of powerful and influential backers behind it, the ISL aims to deliver a fillip to football in India.
As with any sporting contest, rarely is an event possible without a team from India’s ‘Maximum City’, Mumbai. Representing India’s largest metropolis is Mumbai City FC.
Move over Manchester City, for ‘MCFC’ is going to come to denote a team closer home.
Home Venue: D.Y. Patil Stadium in Nerul, Navi Mumbai
Mumbai City FC Squad
Goalkeepers: Ishan Debnath, Subrata Paul, Andre Pereira
Defenders: Deepak Mondal, Peter Costa, Raju Gaikwad, Syed Rahim Nabi, Pavel Cmovs, Ilias Pollalis, Johan Letzelter, Manuel Friedrich
Midfielders: Asif Kottayil, Lalrin Fela, Lalrindika Ralte, Ram Malik, Francisco Luque, Jan Stohanzl, Tiago Ribeiro
Forwards: Abhishek Yadav, Nadong Bhutia, Rohit Mirza, Singam Subhash Singh, Sushil Kumar Singh, Diego Nadaya, Nicolas Anelka
The Mumbai outfit has managed to acquire some of biggest names available.
Former Arsenal legend Frederik Ljungberg is their marquee player and he will have a former teammate by his side in journeyman striker Nicolas Anelka, who looks to be a top acquisition. To go with the former Arsenal duo, the team also has in its ranks defender Manuel Friedrich, a former Germany international, who played his best days with Bayer Leverkusen and was even signed up as cover by Borussia Dortmund last term.
Amongst the younger internationals in the team are defenders Ilias Polallis and Pavel Cmovs with the latter being a regular at the junior levels for the Czech Republic. Experienced French full-back Johan Letzelter, who has played in almost every division of French football, adds to Mumbai’s impressive collection of defenders, making for an extremely solid back-line.
But it is not just the collection of international players that has the Mumbai club buzzing. The team seems to have made some great picks with the choice of domestic talent as well.
Guarding the goal posts will be India keeper Subrata Pal who was among the most expensive local players in the auction. He is coming off a spell with Danish Superliga club FC Vestsjaelland where despite signing on with the main squad he never got a first-team opportunity, featuring only in a few reserve games. So, he will be keen to make an impression once again.
The highly versatile and talented Syed Rahim Nabi will also don the Mumbai colours in the first season of ISL. A match-winner on a regular basis both at club and national level, the Mohammedan man will be looking to show just exactly why he got top billing in the auction.
The other notable Indian faces are Ram Malik and Lalrindika Ralte. Malik, a huge Liverpool fan, is an exciting young winger while East Bengal and India man Ralte, considered one of the best young players in the country, will be a huge attacking threat from midfield. Local boy Raju Gaikwad with 22 national caps to his name is also part of the fray. India veteran Deepak Mondal will be a reassuring presence at the back for the team.
Likely XI: Subrata Pal; Deepak Mondal, Manuel Friedrich, Pavel Cmovs, Syed Rahim Nabi; Freddie Ljungberg, Asif Kottayil, Jan Stohanzl, Lalrindika Ralte; Diego Nadaya, Nicolas Anelka
There’s an English and Premier League connection in the coaching department for Mumbai with Peter Reid as Head Coach, ably assisted by Steve Darby.
Reid has under his belt erstwhile managerial stints at Manchester City, Sunderland and Leeds United. He also had a one-year stint as manager of the Thailand national team between 2008-09. Reid won LMA Manager of the Year award in 1996 after he helped Sunderland stave off relegation in the First Division before eventually guiding them to promotion into the Premier League.
"I have a philosophy and I like to use the wingers. But I have to look at my players and play according to strength. If I have players who pass the ball, then we pass the ball. But in these conditions (heat and humidity), we need to adapt well, not pass the ball excessively," – Reid in a recent interview.
He also went on to add in that interview, "I am coming here to coach players I don't know. Obviously I know Nickolas Anelka, I know Freddie Ljunberg, but the Indians, I am learning. It is a new league, it's exciting. The players are getting to know me."
While Reid may be relatively new to Indian football, his assistant Steve Darby isn’t, having served as the manager of Mohun Bagan in 2011. Besides management, Darby has also been a pundit with initially the BBC and later ESPN Star Sports in Asia. It is a reunion for Reid and Darby who worked in similar capacities with the Thai national team as well.
Mumbai City FC has two very prominent owners in Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor and Mumbai based chartered accountant Bimal Parekh. Ranbir is obviously one of the top male actors in the industry at the moment, but Parekh too has his connections with B-town as he happens to manage the investment portfolios of some of Bollywood’s biggest stars including Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif.
Ranbir has been known to be an ardent football fan since childhood and famously appeared with many of India’s top cricketers in a series of Pepsi commercials a few years ago with the tagline “Change the Game”, in a bid to increase the popularity of football. Along with Parekh, he now owns a talented team of individuals who will now look to take that message forward and do their best in helping the game of football grow farther and wider in the country in years to come.
Nothing symbolizes Mumbai better than its iconic local trains that carry millions of people across the city every single day. And it is no wonder that it finds a place in the logo of Mumbai City FC as the owners wish the franchise to serve the people in the very same way, just like the city’s locals, as a vehicle of entertainment, spreading the joy of football.
How far will they go?
It is just the inaugural season, but at the outset Mumbai look to be one of the teams well-placed to do well.
One of the reasons is that they look to have strength in depth in every position, an important component when it comes to winning championships. And it’s not just the depth, the assembly of talented players at their disposal is also a huge factor.
They have made some smart acquisitions not just with the foreign players, but also the Indian ones. With their senior foreign players, one thing of note is that they haven’t been away from the game for too long. Friedrich, as mentioned, was with Dortmund as of last season and likewise Anelka, who cancelled his contract with Premier League side West Bromwich Albion after the controversy over his ban for following a supposedly incendiary goal celebration. Ljungberg too was involved in football as recently as 2012 when he was involved with Japanese club Shimizu S-Pulse.
They also have a nice assortment of players from the Indian stable including plenty from the national set-up. Pal, Nabi, Ralte and Gaikwad are all some of the best players from the Indian stable and this combination of a strong domestic core to augment their international stars is what makes Mumbai a formidable outfit.
Reid himself believes he has the wherewithal to take his team to the title, exclaiming in a recent interview with Goal.com, “You wouldn’t want to enter a competition and not want to win it. It’s going to be tough, I know that. And everybody else is going to try to win it. But I think we have got enough quality to put on a good display. The unfortunate thing in football is that you can't be sure about these things. Or I would be a billionaire by now!"
And it’s not just hopefuls within the city and their coach who have their sights set firmly on the prize, others around the league seem to think so too. World Cup winner and Chennaiyin FC player/coach Marco Materazzi believes Reid’s side are firm favourites to win it all in the first edition of ISL.
So far they’ve even lived up to their billing, staying perfect with four wins out of four in their pre-tournament friendlies with their main players seeming to be in good touch.
The journey begins this Sunday for Mumbai City FC as they travel to the Salt Lake City Stadium in Kolkata to take on Sourav Ganguly’s Atletico de Kolkata in the season-opener of the ISL. There will be pressure and there will be a million eyes watching, but they look to be prepared to put together an impressive first season.
It will be “Bajegi seeti, Mumbai City ki seeti...”