Ticket demand has reached such an insane level that Dipendu Biswas has to put his phone on silent mode and slide it to a corner of his office. But if Mohammedan Sporting’s football secretary thought that would give him some peace of mind, he’s wrong. Thousands gathered outside the club’s tent in Kolkata on a rainy Friday afternoon to secure tickets to Sunday’s Durand Cup final against FC Goa.
“We each gave two tickets to a few thousand people who came on Thursday,” says Biswas. “Today (Friday) there are already more than 3,000 people waiting outside and we haven’t even started handing out tickets yet.”
The former India attacker is not complaining; if anything, he sounds relaxed and cheerful. For once, the festive chaos is at Sporting’s tent and not at their traditional rivals, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
Seven years ago, a scenario like this seemed unlikely. Mohammedan Sporting, the OG ‘Big Three’ of Indian football along with Bagan and East Bengal, found themselves in such a dire financial situation that they had to disband their first team. Hymns have been written about the club being romanticized for the idea it represented and the kind of football it once played.
You will not see this photo anywhere in India except in Kolkata. No wonder it’s the Mecca of . is called #IndianFootball.
My heart goes out to all those fans who, despite so much patience, have not received tickets. Due to the pandemic, we also have our limitations when handing out tickets. Keep supporting us! pic.twitter.com/7QQpbFmjOX
— Dipak Kumar Singh (@dipaklamb) October 1, 2021
The reason for their decline was the same as that of many other old clubs – mismanagement and inability to adapt, which was accentuated amid the churning of India’s domestic fabric over the past decade.
Now a team of young administrators, consisting of former football players and even a doctor, is trying to put things in order. “We focused on doing a lot of little things right,” said Taha Ahmed, the club’s assistant general secretary.
For Ahmed, this is as much a personal as a professional matter. His father, Sultan, was at the helm of the club for decades and was the driving force behind it. After he died in 2017 at the age of 64, Ahmed Jr – an orthopedic surgeon by profession – moved from Delhi to Kolkata and the reconstruction process began.
“We have an investor who understands our vision. We have a coach from Russia with a long-term contract of three years. Instead of administrators signing players, which happened before, we let the coach build the team the way he wants,” said Ahmed, 33. Biswas added that a “world-class” cafeteria is being built on the grounds of the club. “It’s about doing things the right, professional way,” he says.
These are of course some of the things that are taken for granted in football. The fact that Sporting has only now started doing them shows how far they have been left behind; a mighty fall for a club founded in 1891, a decade before the Muslim League, which once pioneered in so many ways.
In 1933, when Kolkata’s big clubs were playing barefoot, Sporting’s players wore football boots for the first time in a game so they could adapt and play better in the rain. The club put an end to another tradition of Kolkata football by recruiting players from outside Bengal, transforming itself from the face of Bengali Muslims into the first pan-Indian club in a real sense.
“Even the fan base I have never seen a team so well supported in all corners of the country,” said Biswas, who has also played for Bagan and East Bengal. “I remember that after we lost the Federation Cup final to Mahindra United (in 2003), a fan was so heartbroken that he jumped from the top row of the stadium. I’ve never seen anything like it in Indian football.”
During their peak, stadium gates had to be closed hours before kick-off to avoid overcrowding where Sporting went to play. Thousands swayed to the tunes of legendary footballers such as Iran’s Majid Bishkar, who played for the ‘Black Panthers’. In Mumbai, the late thespian Dilip Kumar often stopped by to watch them, and the great Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote poetry to honor the team.
— Mohammedan SC (@MohammedanSC) October 2, 2021
But with time, as the demographics of Indian football changed, several old clubs were late to adapt. And Sporting was one of them. Their biggest challenge was financial. The management turned down sponsorship offers from alcohol brands, which funded Bagan and East Bengal, and no other company showed any willingness to be associated with them.
Sporting depended on donations from wealthy individuals and cash register receipts on match days, but that alone wasn’t enough to keep a club going as players’ salaries and administrative costs rose. “How long can you run a club with money collected by a handful of people?” Sultan had said in 2014 while announcing the closure of the first team.
The turnaround since then has been gradual. And now they are a touching distance from their first major title in nearly a decade. There’s something eerily poetic about playing Mohammedan Sporting in the Durand Cup final – a hundred-year-old club, forgotten in most parts of the country, trying to resurrect itself by reaching the final of a hundred-year-old competition, which has also been forgotten in most parts of the country.
“In 2016, when General Bipin Rawat became Chief of Staff of the Army, he decided that if the Durand Cup has to go back to its legacy, the only place possible is the capital of (Indian) football and that is Kolkata. So we moved the tournament from Delhi,” said Eastern Command Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General KK Repswal. “And I am very happy that we have Mohammedan Sporting in the final. They have a very special place because they were the first Indian (civil) club to win this cup.”
Any talk of a revival of the fallen giant of Indian football is too early. But while Indian football is groping in the dark and trying to forge some sort of identity, Sporting’s march to the final is a friendly reminder. “With our performance, we want to remind everyone in India that we are still here,” Ahmed said.
The thousands who will fill Salt Lake Stadium on Sunday will further corroborate this claim.