AIFF Media Team

NEW DELHI: I-League 2023–24 was no Punic War for Mohammedan Sporting; it was a simple ball game that demanded remarkable consistency in a 24-match streak. Yet for the 133-year-old iconic Kolkata club, winning the title was like Hannibal Barca and his Carthaginian army’s improbable five-month journey across the snow-ridden Alps.

The long whistle at the end of the match against Shillong Lajong FC at the SSA Stadium in Shillong on Saturday, April 6, 2024, was much more than the curtain coming down on a 90-minute affair for Mohammedan Sporting. It was the watershed moment of a seemingly endless wait, 27 years to be exact, to wear a crown that they longed dearly for but remained elusive over the years.

Ever since the National Football League (NFL) kicked off in the 1996–97 season and was renamed the I-League in 2007-8, Mohammedan Sporting, the winners of every major domestic title multiple times, continued to exist more like outsiders in this pan-India league.

This season, the Black and White Brigade were certainly no gatecrashers. They stormed the finish line with a wonderful degree of steadiness, leaving their other 12 rivals behind by a lengthy distance. They have bagged the trophy with a round to spare; 15 wins, seven draws and only one defeat against their name in the points table so far is a testimony of the Kolkata side’s dominance.

“Yes, it is the end of a long wait,” said Mr. Dipak Singh, the Chairperson of the Mohammedan Sporting Board of Directors. “I feel proud because we planned to raise a team with young and talented Indian footballers, along with capable and effective foreign recruits.

“We didn’t believe in having an exorbitant budget or going on an expensive buying spree in the transfer market. We looked for a balanced side with solid bench strength. The result is in front of you,” said the Gurgaon-based Chairperson of the historic club, who also runs a top-class taekwondo academy and a cricket club in the capital.

Mr. Dipak Singh isn’t far from the truth. This I-League has seen Mohammedan Sporting introduce a bunch of Indian players, who were hardly known beyond a restricted circle, but now, at the end of the season, are looked upon with respect in the Indian football fraternity.

No one cared much when Padam Chettri switched over from Kenkre FC, the team, who twice finished at the bottom of the I-League. But under the tutelage of Andrey Chernyshov, the custodian has become one of the trump cards of Mohammedan Sporting, who owe many of their points to Chettri.

Not far behind are players like forward David Lalhlansanga, midfielder S Bikash Singh or Lalremsanga Fanai. They came from Aizawl FC, TRAU FC or Rajasthan United, rather unnoticed, only to play major roles in Mohammedan Sporting’s maiden I-League triumph.

Mohammedan Sporting didn’t go for fashionable foreign recruits either. Argentine forward Alexis Gomez and Uzbek midfielder Mirjajol Kasimov were earlier plying their trade at Sudeva FC and NEROCA FC, respectively. In the end, it has been proven beyond doubt that they are no mean operators; their contributions to Mohammedan Sporting’s triumph will be written in golden letters.

“A united dressing remained our biggest strength,” said Swagato Bhattacharya, the CEO of the club. “Our players are hungry for success, the coach is tactically strong and a fine man manager, and the management is focussed. Together, we could reach our target,” he added.

The head coach, Andrey Chernyshov, a Russian, was undoubtedly a key factor behind the club’s title-winning performance. A reputed centre-back of his time, his second stint with the Maidan outfit has proved fruitful; he has achieved something that many of his celebrated predecessors could not. He has helped one of India’s most popular clubs get promoted to the Indian Super League; a few million more fans will, for sure, join Indian football’s super show next season.

Andrey Chernyshov has done an unforgettable favour to Indian football.