20 December 2015, Fatorda Stadium, Goa
The ghosts of 2014 seemed to have been exorcised. A year after they witnessed a heartbreaking loss in the semifinals of the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League, a heaving mass of humanity at the Fatorda Stadium could smell the title. It was all over bar the shouting, except that they’d been shouting away all night anyway. Borja Fernandez’s winning penalty in the shootout the previous season now a distant memory.
Apoela Edel, impregnable over two legs for Atletico De Kolkata and hero of that semifinal, was now poetically enough playing for Chennaiyin. And he had just allowed Joffre’s 87thminute freekick to squirm under his arms and into the goal. Goa led for the first time in the match and part owner, Virat Kohli, led celebrations in the stands as match organizers prepared to crown a new champion.
Which they did of course, except that it would be Chennaiyin. In less than four minutes, the Gaurs managed to self-destruct comically. Goalkeeper, Laxmikant Kattimani, punched an innocuous ball into his own net after colliding with a teammate and doozy defending then allowed an almost disbelieving Stiven Mendonza the winner. In the blink of an eye, Goa had added the curse of the home final to their woes.
17 March 2018, Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru
The curse had befallen the Kerala Blasters in 2016 as well and hushed whispers were giving way for genuine concern as Bengaluru FC sealed a place in the final in their first season in the league. The showpiece event had only been moved from Kolkata to Bengaluru a few days earlier and it looked like fate was conspiring to deny a home team the title for the third season in a row.
Not that the club itself were too bothered. They had walked into an established league expecting to be champions. They had won the I-League in their first season in 2013-14 and had won a major trophy every year since. Albert Roca’s side blew all opposition away as they sealed top spot in the standings with a record points haul and a considerable gap on Chennaiyin in second. Pune were dispatched off in the semifinals and a record 25,753 people converged on the Kanteerava to see history being made yet again.
Chennaiyin’s fans had been in fine voice before kick-off but were silenced by a Sunil Chhetri header in the 9thminute. The West Block Blues raised the decibel levels a notch and the stadium was rocking. The din hadn’t quite settled down when the away team won a corner against the run of play. Mailson Alves rose highest to score. Cue the travelling support, and it remained that way. Alves added an identical second just before halftime and the expected fightback just did not materialize. Miku’s injury time header reduced the arrears after Raphael Augusto had extended Chennaiyin’s lead but the footballing gods had once again dealt the same hand in an ISL final.
17 March 2019, Mumbai Football Arena
No Chennaiyin to face. And not at home. The omens look good for both teams already.
Exactly one year later, Chhetri and co. will descend upon Mumbai to erase wounds still fresh in the memory. For a while after that defeat, the players appeared to be in a dazed spell before the fight returned and promises to bounce back stronger were made to each other and to their fans. And they have made good on them. The performances of the Blues this season have not been a patch on those from last year, but they have added more steel to their armour and look stronger for it. They have learnt to win ugly and have done so time and time again in the last few months. And that is not a bad quality to possess in a final.
This is a totally different Goa from the one in 2015. The aftermath of that match had far-reaching implications not only for the team, their supporters and very publicly the owners, but also on Zico’s legacy. The entire 2016 season was a write-off and Sergio Lobera has since gone about forging his own path, to great success. Kattimani remains somewhere in the woodwork; he has not appeared this season, but Mandar Rao Dessai is the only other player remaining from that final. He is the captain now and will be desperate to banish old memories in Mumbai.
Goa have shrugged most comers off this season, save the team they will face on the night. Bengaluru have managed to overcome the Gaurs in two meetings this season. Flair has lost out to grit on both occasions, but it may well be the case that the team that can marry those qualities the best on Sunday will emerge victorious and lay the ghosts to rest, once and for all. For the losers, the curse of being perennial bridesmaids might follow.