India’s Project Restart: Reviewing the I-League Qualifiers
Updated: Oct 30, 2020
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Mohammedan SC - Champions of I-League Qualifiers 2020
This article was written for and published in October 2020 Issue of Stadium Echo Magazine – an all-encompassing magazine, started by Ritwik Khanna, that covers Indian Football. Download the issue from here: https://www.stadiumecho.com/the-magazine and read other interesting articles that cover different facets of football in India.
While the Indian Premier League is being played abroad, in the UAE, the opportunity to restart post-lockdown live-sporting action in the country was grabbed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). It organised the I-League Qualifiers – an 11-day mini-tournament where five teams: ARA FC, Bhawanipore FC, FC Bengaluru United, Garhwal FC, and Mohammedan SC toughed it out for a spot in the I-League, with Mohammedan SC, the historicKolkata-based club, coming out on the top and achieving promotion after seven seasons in the second division.
Undoubtedly, it was a matter of pride for the football community that I-League Qualifiers commenced India’s ‘Project Restart’, but at the same time, the responsibility on the shoulders of the officials and the association was enormous. It can be safely stated that the endeavor turned out to be action-packed, but more importantly, the authorities kept in check the safety protocols and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and properly maintained the bio-bubble.
After 211 long, football-less days, it was on the 8th of October when, rather poetically, in the hub of Indian football – the city of Kolkata – the first game of the tournament was played between Bhawanipore FC and FC Bengaluru United in the YBK Stadium. Even though FC Bengaluru United controlled the tempo of the game, it was the resilient defence and efficient shooting that led the Kolkata-based club to a 2-0 victory.
It was a good day for the clubs from Kolkata – a trend that would continue throughout the campaign – as Mohammedan SC snatched victory in the dying minutes of the game against the Delhi-based underdogs, Garhwal FC. Expectedly, like all the other teams coming back from a long break with less time to prepare, the Black Panthers were patchy and tentative in their gameplay on the opening matchday. There was nothing shabby about left-back Timothy Munmun Lugun’s 93rd-minute strike from distance, which was perhaps the goal of the tournament.
On Matchday 2, Mohammedan SC played ARA FC, while Garhwal FC were matched up against FC Bengaluru United. The Black Panthers shrugged off their rustiness, and justified their favourites tag with a comprehensive 4-1 victory over the newly-found club from Ahmedabad. The offensive play of the likes of Sk Faiaz, Abhishek Rijal, Willis Plaza, and Vanlalbiaa Chhangte proved to be too much to handle for the ARA FC’s backline.
In the following game, FC Bengaluru United sneaked a 1-0 win over Garhwal FC. Though Richard Hood’s team dominated the ball, both sides created chances to score more. One of the reasons for Garhwal’s loss was their sloppy and wasteful play in front of the goal – an issue that would hamper their entire campaign.
The tournament also wasn’t devoid of drama off the pitch. After Mohammedan SC’s win against ARA, Yan Law, out of the blue announced his decision of stepping down as the head coach of the Black Panthers. Later, club sources confirmed that it wasn’t Law who left but rather the club management that had terminated his contract. Assistant coach, Saheed Ramon, was handed over the reins.
Wasim Akram, the club’s general secretary, charged the head coach with leaking screenshots of their chats and of falling out with his assistants. It was also made known that the technical director, Dipendu Biswas, was pulling the strings even on Matchday 2 against ARA FC. Meanwhile, The Bridge also reported that Law was frustrated with the management and was looking for a quick way out.
On Matchday 3, Garhwal FC faced Bhawanipore FC in the noon kick-off – a game, it can be said in hindsight, that became the stepping stone to the final showdown of the tournament. Sticking to their proven tactics, Bhawanipore FC maintained their shape; were comfortable to play without the ball; and found themselves two goals up in less than an hour. However, the final 15 minutes proved to be very tense for Sankarlal Chakraborty’s team because of Afdal Varikkodan’s 76th-minute strike, which was also the first goal of the campaign for the Delhi club. Courtesy of this 2-1 victory, Bhawanipore FC found themselves level on six points with their city rivals, Mohammedan FC – turning the upcoming derby into a quasi-final of the tournament.
The second game of the day was FC Bengaluru United versus ARA FC. It was a cagey, battle-of-the-midfields where ARA FC’s heart was broken by Mohammad Asrar Rehber’s injurytime penalty which cancelled out Pratik Swami’s opener. Numerically both the teams still remained in the hunt for the top spot, but practically not so much.
On Matchday 4, the stage was all set for the big clash between the two clubs from Kolkata. Since both the powerhouses of Indian and Calcutta football, ATK Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal, shifted to ISL, the I-League found itself lacking representation from Kolkata. Both of these clubs, coming into the qualifiers, would have felt the pressure to restore the city’s pride and enter the nation’s secondary league.
Mohammedan SC seized this opportunity and began the game on the front foot. Their opponents stayed true to their sit-back and counter-attack approach. However, their defense was unlocked by an incisive team move that was finished off by Vanlalbiaa Chhangte in the 27th minute. As the game progressed, Bhawanipore FC grew into the game and created good chances. However, their inefficiency in front of the goal eventually came back to haunt them when Gani Nigam provided the cushioning of a second goal to the Black Panthers in the 67th minute. The 2-0 victory sealed their entry into the upcoming season of the I-League because of Bhawanipore FC’s inferior head-tohead against their city rivals. There remained no such scenario where any team could have overtaken the Black Panthers.
In the other game of the Matchday, ARA FC drew 1-1 with Garhwal FC – a match where both the sides would have felt disappointed and rued the fact that they didn’t open their wins column.
On the final Matchday as well, when the results had no substantial meaning, the clubs from Kolkata displayed why they were a cut above the rest as Bhawanipore FC comfortably overcame ARA FC 2-0 while Mohammedan SC’s 0-0 stalemate against FC Bengaluru United meant that they remained undefeated throughout the campaign.
Bhawanipore FC’s Pankaj Moula, Philip Adjah, and Mohammedan SC’s Abhishek Rijal, with two goals each, capped off as joint top goalscorers of the tournament. The Black Panthers’ custodian, Priyant Kumar Singh and his backline ended with the most clean sheets (3). Mohammedan SC also conceded the least while scoring the most goals in the campaign, that is, one and seven respectively.
As Mohammedan SC joins the big boys after seven long years, and at the end of 11 exciting days of football festivity, the Indian football season is safely, and well and truly underway. It would be a happy thought for Indian football fans that this revamped mini-tournament was only the entrée. The main dishes, in the form of the illustrious ISL and I-League, are on their way from the Indian football kitchen.
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Picture Credits: i-league.org