Kibu Vicuna’s Mohun Bagan entered the Green and Maroon folklore by winning the 2019-20 I-League title. The Mariners had already tasted their maiden I-League title triumph in 2014-15, so what was so special about the latter campaign?
Anybody who saw Mohun Bagan’s I-League matches in 2019-20 would recount how seamlessly Vicuna married dominance with delight. It seemed that the players were at one with the club’s crest and colors, striving relentlessly to achieve the glory that its 130-year legacy was worth. The fact that the Mariners registered a 14-match unbeaten run and bagged the title with four games left easily qualifies them as one of Indian football’s all-time great squads.
A key member of that team was Spain’s Fran Gonzalez. Adept at playing both as a centre-back and a defensive midfielder, González displayed an incredible appetite for goals. He featured in Bagan’s all 16 I-League matches that season and ended up as their joint top-scorer (10) with Senegalese forward Papa Babacar Diawara.
Gonzalez’s versatility on the pitch and affability off it garnered immense popularity from Kolkata football aficionados. The Spaniard felt betrayed when an unresolved contract situation forced him to part ways with Mohun Bagan after the team’s merger with ATK FC ahead of ISL 2020-21. Gonzalez then joined Bengaluru FC, but didn’t have much success in his maiden ISL season.
The 32-year-old is currently plying his trade for Real Kashmir FC and has been an integral part of their ongoing IFA Shield campaign. The defending champions have reached the knockout stage of the prestigious tournament and will take on Mohammedan Sporting Club in the first quarter-final on Wednesday afternoon. Interestingly, the match will be played at the same venue where Gonzalez won the I-League as a Mariner 21 months back – the Kalyani Stadium.
In a candid chat with Sportskeeda a day before the game, Gonzalez criticized the ATK-Mohun Bagan merger and explained why joining Real Kashmir was the best choice for the 2021-22 season. Excerpts:
Q: So Fran Gonzalez is back in West Bengal, the state where he won the I-League title with Mohun Bagan in the 2019-20 season and became a fan-favorite. How much are you missing the crowds?
Gonzalez: Well, I guess you can’t imagine how much I miss them. Football without fans is nothing. I did everything I could that season just because of them and we couldn’t even celebrate it. Maybe that’s why I got the chance to come back now. This is my home.
Q: You admitted to being disappointed with Mohun Bagan’s cold behavior towards you, after the merger with ATK FC. Has it made you disillusioned with the Kolkata clubs?
Gonzalez: Even if we don’t agree, we have to accept that football has become a business. They sold such a big club to a company and didn’t care about the fans. You can see the result now. The more expensive group of players are playing without any connection with their own fans. You can’t buy feelings with money.
Q: Congratulations on making the knockouts of the IFA Shield! Why did you choose to join Real Kashmir FC? Did any other Indian club approach you ahead of this season?
Gonzalez: I got a few offers to return to the I-League this season, but I chose them [Real Kashmir] because the coach [David Robertson] showed me from the very beginning that he wanted me here. I understand that in football and in life, you have to be where people love you. That’s why I’m back in Kolkata.
Q: Mohammedan Sporting Club are fresh off their CFL triumph. Do you think your duel with Marcus Joseph will be the decisive contest of the first IFA Shield quarter-final?
Gonzalez: I really think they have a great group of players. They already proved that by winning the CFL. We respect them and I’m pretty sure it will be a nice battle between two strong teams. It’s not just about Marcus and Fran…I’m just another piece of this machine we are making to fight for everything this season.
Q: You played in the ISL for Bengaluru FC last season. What are the main differences between the ISL and the I-League?
Gonzalez: As I always say, everything is easier if you are in the ISL - training grounds and stadiums, medical tools, facilities…There are a few young players in Real Kashmir who will be there [in ISL] soon. I’m here to help them by sharing my experience and that’s a pleasure for me.
Q: Tell us about your time at Real Kashmir so far. Which teams do you think will give Real Kashmir the toughest challenge in your quest for the I-League title?
Gonzalez: Honestly, I’m enjoying my time with them [Real Kashmir] so far. It’s not easy to be here without family, in a bio-bubble. I miss my son so much, but we are building up a family among the players and the staff to be able to face the tough challenges together. That’s the key. David is doing a great job by giving us the confidence to become a great team. As you know, there is never any easy opponent in this competition. We respect them all, but I’m excited to play against my brother [Joseba] Beitia and see what we can achieve this season.
Poll : Can Real Kashmir FC defend their IFA Shield title this season?