Mahindra United's moment of glory

MAHINDRA UNITED is the new symbol of footballing supremacy in the country. The Mumbai giant etched its name in the roll of honour, becoming the ninth club team to lift the Federation Cup — sponsored this time by the steel and automobile giant Tata.

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

Jubilant members of the Mahindra United team with the Federation Cup. — Pic. S. PATRONOBISH-

MAHINDRA UNITED is the new symbol of footballing supremacy in the country. The Mumbai giant etched its name in the roll of honour, becoming the ninth club team to lift the Federation Cup — sponsored this time by the steel and automobile giant Tata.

Mahindra's Shanmugam Venkatesh (right) makes a valiant attempt to score during the final. Incidentally, Venkatesh went on to score the only goal of the match, later in the day. — Pic: S. PATRONOBISH-

Triumphing among the country's 16 best clubs, which converged in Kolkata for the 15-day (July 26 to August 9) soccer fest, Mahindra United's accomplishment forged another remarkable mutation. It brought about a welcome break in the apparent bipolarisation of the sport. The recent years have come to see Goa and Bengal share the spoils in the competitive sphere of the game while the rest of India remains a mere participant. With promotion being the spirit of the times, football's provincialisation is considered a bane by many of the sport's pundits. In this context East Bengal coach, Subhas Bhowmick, had been one of the exponents of "expansion" as he lamented the apparent "constriction" of the sport by the overbearing presence of the two States. Despite his famed team biting the dust in the quarterfinals, Bhowmick should have been happy in some corner of his heart seeing the Mumbai team triumph, beating the local aspirant Mohammedan Sporting in the final.

Mahindra's achievement coincided with the tournament celebrating its silver jubilee. The Federation Cup saw its first edition in 1977 and was conceived as the premier national tournament to decide the champion club of the country till the National Football League (NFL) usurped its status in 1997. It came up to be treated as secondary as could be judged from the fact that it regularly missed the national calendar — in the years 1999, 2000 & 2002. In the absence of any good knock-out meets that could involve all the top clubs of the country, the All India Football Federation now appears interested in the `rapid' format, which can well give the meet a new lease of life.

Mohun Bagan striker Jose Barreto watches his shot go past the Mohammedan Sporting goalkeeper K. M. Rafeek and also the goal post in the first semifinal. — Pic: S. PATRONOBISH-

In the absence of any tournament last season or qualifying meets, the line-up was a rehash of the NFL's elite division last season and the top four teams of the premier league's second division. The tournament gave an interesting break from the protracted follow-up of the NFL, as there were surprises galore right from the first round. While the city and the local organiser — Indian Football Association — participated with enthusiasm the weather played spoilsport. With the monsoon in full flow, the pitch of the giant Salt Lake Stadium turned into a slime pit following a couple of matches as the spikes dug out all the mud and the players faced a pitiable plight grovelling in the slush for the most part during the matches. The IFA blamed the sports department of the State Government — which owns and maintains the stadium — for not tending the pitch properly with timely repairs. As criticism mounted and the ASEAN Club champion East Bengal threatened a boycott, the IFA forced a break in the fixture to do the necessary re<147,2,1>pairs. The final stages of the meet — especially the semifinals and the final — thus could be held in more `civilised' conditions.

Action started with local team Mohammedan Sporting taking on Indian Telephone Industries, Bangalore. Making its bid to regain its glorious past, Mohammedan Sporting was aided more by the mud than the form of its players, who seemed to surrender their scoring abilities once reaching the opponent box. ITI found the slush more daunting than the opponent, as its players huffed and puffed in the slush before Sporting sneaked in a 60th-minute goal by its midfielder Bungo Singh to register a quarterfi<147,3,1>nal berth. Goa's Salgaocar drubbed Chennai representative Indian Bank 4-0 to set up a quarterfinal clash.

The defending champion Mohun Bagan, which is besieged by factional fight in the club administration almost reaching a state of mayhem, never looked an inspired side. With the players threatening mutiny ever so often missing their periodic payments, the team morale could not be expected to be at its highest. Coach Aloke Mukherjee had been trying to bring up the team from the depths and only succeeded in preventing a first round exit. Mohun Bagan once again depended on the talent of Brazilian Jose Barreto to realise a 2-1 win over spirited State Bank of Travancore. The surprise came when Goa's Churchill Brothers was dealt a `sudden death' by the Punjab team, JCT Mills. JCT's African `lion' in goal — Mansuru Mohammad — turned out to be the hero, negating the attempts of the Goa players in the regulation, extra-time and in the penalties before fetching a quarterfinal berth for his team.

Mahindra forward James Singh (right) tries to get past Vasco defender Vinu Jose during the second semifinal.-

Mahindra United beat Haywards Sporting Club 2-1 in another close first round contest while the other Goan team, Vasco SC, managed an 88th-minute equaliser through substitute Anthony Fernandes and utilised the late reprieve, pipping its local opponent DTDC Tollygynge Agragami 7-6 via penalties. Another long-forgotten Mumbai team, Air India, gave a good display of its abilities, ending the hopes of Goa's Dempo with a 2-1 result. East Bengal, arriving fresh from its ASEAN triumph, spelt that out with a 5-0 thrashing of the hapless Bangalore outfit Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.

The quarterfinals surprisingly saw a level playing field as three Goan teams and one Bengal team were ejected in the first round pruning. Playing their matches of the season — and with their local league starting after the monsoon onslaught — the Goan teams' uneasiness on the mud continued into the quarterfinals as Mohammedan Sporting made mincemeat of Salgaocar, which failed to reproduce a fraction of its famed form as the local players scored in delight. Mohun Bagan struck form against JCT and, with contributions from international Renedy Singh (two goals) and Barreto (one goal), prevailed over JCT 3-0 to progress to the semifinals.

Mahindra displayed a superlative form against its city rival Air India and the 3-0 scoreline that the former managed in the end actually set it up for the title. The biggest surprise came in the form of the favourite East Bengal bowing out of the tournament as Vasco achieved the seemingly impossible victory. With an aura of invincibility surrounding the ASEAN club champion, Vasco attained the biggest upset, downing East Bengal 1-0 through substitute Sushant Mathew's 83rd minute goal. Bhowmick attributed East Bengal's defeat to the post-tournament fatigue that seemed to have affected the players after the nerve-wrenching matches in Jakarta.

Vasco's Kamal Thapa stretches full length to clear the ball from East Bengal's Suley Musah in the quarterfinals. The Kolkata giant made a shocking exit in the last eight stage. — Pic: S. PATRONOBISH-

The semifinals saw the exit of the other favourite as a 10-man Mohammedan Sporting successfully warded off the challenge of defending champion Mohun Bagan SC 5-4 via tiebreaker. Having realised an <147,4,0>NFL elite division berth earlier in the year, Sporting came close to another big achievement as the team reached the final for the first time in 13 years and after 11 editions of the tournament. With the match played under lights, Mohammedan Sporting showed remarkable endurance, holding Mohun Bagan goalless for the 120 minutes of regulation and extra-time before ending the title-hopes of the latter in the shoot-outs. The team lost its Nigerian defender Habib Adekunle, who was booked for the second time, in the 89th minute, but doggedly defended the 30 minutes of extra-time before succeeding in the penalties.

Hoping to be third-time lucky, Mahindra appeared in the right impetus against Vasco in the second semifinal. Having failed in its earlier attempts — in 1991 and 1993 — Mahindra wrested the initiative from the start. Being coached by Englishman David Booth, the Mumbai team's approach looked good as it utilised the initial hesitancy of the Vasco defence forging inroads into the opponent defence at will.

The Mumbai outfit's sharpness and variety were quite impressive as the team struck twice in the first session through its Togo recruit Raphael Patron. But the win actually resulted chiefly owing to the services rendered by James Singh and Shanmugan Venkatesh, who were put on a freelancing role by Booth. The two did very well with their crafty runs and sudden bursts of speed, creating confusion in the opponent ranks and providing Patron with numerous passes. Falling back to defending in the second session, Mahindra conceded a goal as Vasco saw its winger Krishnan Ajayan pulling one back in the 66th minute. The scoreline endured for the rest of the match as Mahindra succeeded in defending.

East Bengal's Bijen Singh celebrates after scoring his second goal against HAL in the pre-quarterfinal match. East Bengal trounced HAL 5-0. — Pic: S. PATRONOBISH-

Having done so well so far, Mahindra United accomplished the `jubilee' act blanking the overwhelmingly favourite Mohammedan Sporting 1-0 in the floodlit final. Venkatesh's 78th minute winner was a just tribute to his talent and temperament.

Apart from collecting the winner's purse of Rs. 10,00,000, the Mumbai outfit thus proved its credentials of being one of the top clubs of the country. The team did exceptionally well, thwarting a super-charged Mohammedan Sporting, which was egged on by around 70,000 supporters in the first session, and then got itself into the match gradually in the second session to ensure its historic triumph.