Mohammedan Sporting after winning the CFL.
Sabir Hussain/New Delhi
One of India’s oldest football clubs – Kolkata’s Mohammedan Sporting Club has emerged from near oblivion to begin an enviable turnaround. Once part of the Big Three along with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting had been languishing in the shadows since the mid-1980s but is now on a resurgent path.
Sunday Long Read
The 130-year-old club in the iconic black and white jersey gave a hint of its intent when it won the Calcutta Football League (CFL) last year after a gap of 40 years to bring back the whoops of joy and the rush of adrenaline among its fans across the country. It was their 12th league title in a competition where it had set a record by becoming the first Indian club to win the CFL in 1934. That glorious run lasted till 1939 for five successive CFL titles.
Over the decades, Mohammedan Sporting has won almost every major tournament including the Durand Cup (first Indian team to do so), Rovers Cup, DCM Trophy, the IFA Shield, and the Federation Cup among others. But the two consecutive Federation Cup triumphs in 1983 and 1984 were its last major victories.
The club’s fortunes began to wane after it missed out on sponsorships while rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan soared after being bankrolled by Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher. Internal wrangling did not help either and the club barely managed to stay afloat.
All those are now a thing of the past. In October 2020, Bunkerhill, a Gurgaon-based sports management company, decided to invest in Mohammedan Sporting which is now fuelling the club’s turnaround. In just over a year since Bunkerhill came onboard, Mohammedan Sporting reclaimed the CFL. Last month, it began its I-League campaign with a 2-1 victory over Sudeva Delhi FC before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a postponement.
Mohammedan Sporting head Coach Andrey Chernyshov
“Mohammedan Sporting earlier had a casual approach to running the club. There is now a professional approach and there has been a 360-degree change that includes procedures on recruitment of coaches and players,” Dipak Singh, Director at Bunkerhill told Awaz - The Voice.
One of the reasons why Bunkerhill showed interest in Mohammedan Sporting was because of the heritage value of the black and white brigade.
“It is a historic club with a rich heritage and a countrywide fan base that very few can match. There is also a lot of emotion attached with the club so brand building was not much of a problem when we took over,” he said.
He is happy at the club’s turnaround in just a year. “We won the CFL, reached the final of the Durand Cup, and are playing in the top tier of the I-League. The club has given us a free hand because a serious revamp was needed.”
Bunkerhill seems to have gelled well with Mohammedan Sporting. Danish Iqbal, general secretary of the club said they had been earnest to reclaim lost glory.
“In 2020 we carried out post-mortem of what had gone wrong with us in recent years. We found an investor in Bunkerhill and adopted a thoroughly professional approach to resurrecting the club and it has paid off. We have a long-term programme that includes building up a reserve team,” Iqbal said.
He is candid to acknowledge that the club had been laid low for lack of finances.
“For many years, Mohammedan Sporting had no major sponsors. We had no money and the club barely survived on donations from well-wishers, members and officials. But that problem is now behind us and we have a great understanding with Bunkerhill,” he said.
The professional approach was evident in the way the club went about to hire head coach Andrey Chernyshov, a UEFA Pro License-holder. Mohammedan Sporting and Bunkerhill interviewed 30 coaches before they hired Chernyshov who has coached in seven countries in Europe and the Middle East. He had been a player himself and had also managed the Russian Under-21 team.
The Mohammedan Sporting youth team
Once the coach was hired in May 2021, the club sent him videos of players who have played in India for him to make a shortlist to form the nucleus of the team.
“There is a four-man core committee comprising the coach, the football secretary of the club, and two representatives from Bunkerhill. The coach takes the final call on which players to select. We have given him a three-year contract so he knows he has enough time to deliver and he has adapted very quickly,” Singh said.
“We made a blueprint for the team that included coaches and players and then got down to tackling things one by one,” the club’s football secretary and former Indian international Dipendu Biswas said.
Singh, Iqbal, and Biswas are very clear about the club’s ambition to reach the Indian Super League (ISL) which is the country’s top-tier football league.
“By 2024 we want to be part of the ISL and eventually win it. I am very optimistic about Mohammedan Sporting and we have given long-term contracts to players that will help us reach our goal,” Singh said.
Iqbal and Biswas are also passionate about the club’s youth development programme.
“The youth development programme is vital for sustaining the team because it will help to ensure a steady supply of players over the years,” Biswas said.
Former Indian all-rounder Irfan Pathan Mohammedan Sporting's brand ambassador
“Our youth development programme is a work in progress. We just can’t keep buying players because it is not a sustainable model. We also plan to set up a football academy in the true sense with boarding facilities for inmates,” Singh said.
The youth development programme involves coaching boys in the age group of 6-19 years in the maidans of Kolkata. Currently, more than 500 boys are being trained by professional coaches.
“But the training of kids is now on hold because of the pandemic. The youth development programme will eventually help us in building a reserve team,” Iqbal said.
Like Dipak Singh, Iqbal also said that buying players at the transfer market every season is not a sound idea.
The club now has five foreign players among whom 30-year-old Trinidadian Marcus Joseph is the top gun. Most of the other players are in their early to mid-20s.
Late December, the club appointed former Indian cricket all-rounder Irfan Pathan as its brand ambassador.
Despite its name, Mohammedan Sporting has mostly been a cosmopolitan club with an eclectic mix of players from different parts of the country that reflected Kolkata’s syncretic culture. The club that once symbolized the challenge to British domination in pre-independent India, may just be on the cusp of another illustrious phase of its life.