Rain soaked and confidence sapped, Mohun Bagan players slipped and stumbled on the wet surface of the Sree Kanteerva Stadium. As the minutes ticked by, so did their chances of winning their first-ever I-League title. At the home of I-League’s youngest team Bengaluru FC, the country’s oldest club needed at least a draw to dethrone the defending champions and stop them from winning unprecedented back-to-back I-League titles.
It wasn’t just Bengaluru that the Bagan players were up against. The burden of history (of not having won the domestic title since 13 years), the demanding management (who have conveniently been blaming past failures on the coaches and players) and (majority of) the 21,786 fans who’d filled the stands were just some of the challenges that stared them at the face. The nerves had to play a role. And they did. Going into the final match of the season, which was virtually a Cup final, Bagan led their rivals from the South by two points. Bengaluru have been unbeaten at home and only twice this season have they failed to score a goal.
Bengaluru began more aggressively among the two sides and Englishman John Johnson’s header in the 40th minute helped them take the lead, which gave the hosts a huge advantage in the title race. Bengaluru went in hard for the challenges and moved the ball around well to unsettle Bagan, who looked overwhelmed by the occasion. But Sanjoy Sen’s side soon gathered composure and their Haitian import Sony Norde took it upon himself to bring his side back in the match. But he lacked support from the others, giving Bengaluru the advantage going into half time.
Bengaluru looked content with the one-goal lead and were minutes away from retaining their crown when, in the 87th minute, Bagan centre-back Bello Rasaq rose above the defence and headed in a corner. Till that moment, Bengaluru goalkeeper Lalthuammawia Ralte had had an excellent match in challenging conditions. But Rasaq’s header had a lot of pace on it and was angled perfectly, beating Ralte on the near post.
As the back of the net bulged, only the sound of the 11 Bagan men on field and a few hundred in the stands could be heard as an eerie silence gripped rest of the stadium. After a frantic last few minutes, the referee blew the final whistle. The match ended 1-1 and Bagan had ended their long wait for the title.
Bagan finally won their first-ever I-League title at the home of the champions and in doing so, they became the first team from Kolkata to win the League. No team from Kolkata had won the I-League, which has been dominated by the Goan clubs before Bengaluru ended their stranglehold last year. It also marked the return of the national league trophy to Kolkata for the first time in 11 years. East Bengal were the last side to win the National Football League back in 2004. This was Bagan’s fourth national title but their last one came 13 years ago in 2002.
It may have come after a long hiatus and after a plethora of changes but the manner in which they win their titles remain unchanged. Bagan won the title on Sunday like only Bagan could have won. They have won three out of their four titles on the final day of the season. And on each occasion, it has been their Nigerian strikers who have delivered.
Chima Okorie’s hat-trick in the final league game against Mahindra & Mahindra helped Bagan win the title in 1998. Four years later, Abdul Saliu headed in the winning goal for the Kolkata giants in the 72nd minute against Churchill Brothers to help the lift the trophy in 2002. And on Sunday, it was a header from another Nigerian, Rasaq that helped them win the title.
Tough week for BFC
Bengaluru looked jaded by the end of the match. It’s been a gruelling week for them, which tested Ashley Westwood’s side’s resolve as well as the bench strength. After beating Dempo in Goa last week, they travelled to Hong Kong mid-week for their AFC Cup Round-of-16 tie against South China FC. Playing on a mushy pitch owing to a thunderstorm, they lost the match 2-0 and were consequently knocked out of the tournament. They returned to Bengaluru to play their third – and the most crucial – match of the week.
The result, however, does not take away what they have achieved this season. Bengaluru won the Federation Cup and after a slow start to the season, they gathered momentum at the right time and came back strongly to challenge Bagan for the title. In the end, they would rue the two draws against Mumbai FC and the pulsating 3-3 draw against Royal Wahingdoh, which in the hindsight dented their hopes.
Best defence wins
In the end, it was the team that had the best defence that won the league instead of the team that had the best offence. Bagan conceded just 16 goals throughout the season and it was ironic that the man who has thwarted the attempts of several opposition strikes would score the goal that would win his side the title. Rasaq has been immense at the back for Bagan throughout the season, leading the defence and producing some memorable performances.
In fact, it was the contribution of the foreign players that ultimately played a crucial role. Apart from Rasaq, Norde and their Japanese midfielder Katsumi Yusa played an influential role throughout the campaign whereas the presence of Pierre Boya unsettled several defences. Young Indian players like Pritam Kotal and Balwant Singh too have stepped up when the situation demanded.