For all the right reasons, the Mohun Bagan-Bengaluru FC match in the I-League has been billed as a clash between title contenders. The contest between the two for last year’s I-League literally went down to the wire --- or till the 87th minute of the season’s last game for both --- and with an equaliser, Mohun Bagan sneaked past the team that announced its arrival in 2013-14 by becoming India’s best.
So far, so good. With this year’s I-League a nine-team affair where most are keen on survival or, at best, playing spoilers, defending champions Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC do seem like frontrunners. Going into Saturday’s match between them in Bengaluru, the hosts have 15 points from seven games and Mohun Bagan 11 from five. East Bengal have 14 after seven rounds. Mumbai FC are next on nine points but after six rounds.
Having won the I-League and the Federation Cup respectively, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC will also represent India in the AFC Cup, an Asian inter-club tournament that is one rung below the Champions League, this year. The main round of the 13th edition begins on February 23-24.
Mohun Bagan are in Group G along with South China (Hong Kong), Yangon United (Myanmar) and Maldives’ Maziya. They open against Maziya on February 24. On the same day, Bengaluru FC travel away to Myanmar’s Ayeyawady United. Bengaluru FC are in Group H along with champions Johor Darul Ta’azim (Malaysia), Lao Toyota FC of Laos and United.
The AFC Cup runs till November 5 with the quarter-finals in September (13-14; 21-22). And that is where the problem lies for Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC, given that they have loaned players from Indian Super League (ISL) franchises.
For Bengaluru FC, Sunil Chhetri (Mumbai City FC) and Thoi Singh (Chennaiyin FC) are loanees. Their contracts end on May 31, 2016.
Mohun Bagan’s problems are compounded by the fact that Jeje Lalpekhlua, Dhanachandra Singh and Abhishek Das have two-year deals with Chennaiyin FC meaning that after the I-League and the Federation Cup, the trio would return to the ISL champions. Mohun Bagan also have Balwant Singh (Chennaiyin FC), Brandon Fernandes (Mumbai City FC), Subhas Singh (Mumbai City FC), Lenny Rodrigues (FC Pune City) and Bikramjit Singh (FC Goa) on loan till May 31.
No start date has yet been set for ISL3 but, like in the past two seasons, it should be in the October-December window this year. That means, franchises will have pre-seasons in September.
So, what would happen if Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC qualify for the quarter-finals? The question’s relevant because East Bengal and Dempo have already made the AFC Cup semi-finals and last term, Bengaluru FC fell one step short, losing 0-2 to South China.
“We had preempted this situation the last year and put forward our concerns to the AIFF (All India Football Federation). However, we bowed out in the Round-of-16 stage of the AFC Cup which meant the situation never arose. Doing well in Asia still remains our target and like last season, we will look to the governing body to sort the situation in the best possible way should it arise,” said Mustafa Ghouse, COO, BFC, in an e-mail to Hindustan Times.
Speaking over the phone from New Delhi, Kushal Das, the AIFF general secretary, said the federation has nothing to do with what is essentially an arrangement between two clubs. Just as the AIFF had nothing to do with Mohun Bagan and East Bengal getting ISL franchises to agree to them releasing their players after the Kolkata league’s derby in 2015, Das said.
Even as Mohun Bagan get Guwahati ready for next week’s AFC Cup tie, Debasish Dutta, a director with the club, said they would cross when they come to it. “Look, we don’t have sponsors. How can I tell you what we will do if we make it to the quarter-finals of the AFC Cup?,” he said.
Mohun Bagan’s financial backers haven’t been paying over a year now. The football team is run by money generated by members, most of it from president Swapan Sadhan Bose. That explains why Mohun Bagan got eight top players on loan for the 2016 I-League, which runs from January-April and the Federation Cup in May, instead of keeping them from the June transfer window.
Owing to the monsoon which renders grounds unplayable, schedules of the Indian season and the AFC Cup don’t match. East Bengal’s inability to retain top players after the 2003-04 hurt them in the 2004 quarter-final. So, going forward, Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan can offer the players in question new deals from June 2016 like they would have in the time before the ISL. But that could also mean getting into a bidding war with ISL franchises at a time when almost all I-League clubs are looking to cut costs. After last season, Bharat FC and Royal Wahingdoh pulled out of the I-League.
Helping split players’ salaries has been one of the ways ISL franchises have helped beleaguered Indian clubs. Getting a bigger audience for football played in India has been another positive. Giving Indian players a better environment on and off the pitch would be a third. But has it come in the way of Indian clubs seeking to make a mark in Asia?