Let’s be honest. Until the City Football Group bought a majority stake in the club midway through last season, no one really saw the Islanders as serious title contenders. Yes, they made playoff appearances in 2016 and 2018-19 on the back of pragmatic tactics, but trophy talk always revolved around the likes of ATK, Bengaluru, Goa, Chennaiyin and dare I say it, Kerala.
The Maximum City has lost some of its footballing pedigree in recent decades. Once home to the second oldest tournament in the country in the Rovers Cup, the profile of the game has dipped since the legendary Cooperage Stadium last hosted a final in the 2000-01 season. Since Mumbai FC closed down operations in 2017, no club from the city has featured in the I-League. But the exodus had started much earlier. Mahindra United, champions in 2005-06, shut down in 2010. Public sector units, a lifeline for many aspiring Indian sportspersons, were barred from taking part in the tournament from the 2013-14 season onwards. The likes of Air India, with such a proud record in Indian football, and ONGC, were jettisoned overnight.
All these developments have meant that Mumbai City FC, founded in 2014, are the only club from the city plying their trade in the top three tiers in the country. Consistently averaging the lowest crowd attendances in the ISL until the suits from Abu Dhabi turned up, the club has been handpicked to threaten the established order, and a title has been delivered on in their first full season in charge.
Jorge Costa always looked like a manager living on borrowed time when CFG took over in November 2019. In a matter of months, ex-Barcelona man, Sergio Lobera, would be called upon to lead a revolution at the club. After guiding the Gaurs to two successive playoff appearances and a Super Cup triumph in 2019, he was fired late into his third campaign, despite being top of the league. The timing could not have been better for CFG. Importantly for them, his playing philosophy resonated with their framework and they could not have picked a more suitable man for the job. Several high-profile purchases later, Mumbai started the season as title favourites for the first time in their existence.
After a shock defeat against NorthEast United in the opening week, the Islanders went on the kind of run befitting a team with two quality players in every position. Over a period of three weeks late in the campaign, the wheels threatened to come off with some middling results, but they recovered just in time to seal their place in the showcase final. In front of them were the defending champions, albeit in a newer avatar, and arguably stronger for it. ATK Mohun Bagan’s Antonio López Habas had guided teams to two finals previously and won them both. Like Mumbai, the Mariners had stumbled in recent weeks too but there was no doubting their championship winning credentials.
They started the final like a house on fire. Pressing intensely from the off, Mumbai’s propensity for overelaboration in their own box played into the Mariners’ hands as Ahmed Jahouh was dispossessed by Roy Krishna. The Fijian laid the ball on a platter for David William and the Australian made no mistake with his finish. As is usually the case with Habas’ teams, they sat back after taking the lead and that allowed the Islanders a route back into the game. In the 29th minute, Jahouh found himself in acres of space and played one of those long balls over the top he specializes in. A retreating Tiri, with Bipin Singh snapping at his heels, only managed to head the ball into his own net with Arindam Bhattacharya stranded in goal.
At 1-1, it was anybody’s game and both teams renewed their efforts to gain the upper hand. An unfortunate head injury to Amay Ranawade on the stroke of halftime, later confirmed as a concussion, provided everyone with a reminder that this was just a game in the end. As Jürgen Klopp maintained last season, football is the most important of the least important things. It certainly felt that way in the minutes it took to stabilize the player and get him to hospital for further checks.
Both teams were a tad more cautious after the interval, with a spare man always available to mop up if a teammate made a mistake. Extra time loomed on the horizon when fate played its hand out in the 90th minute. Bhattacharya, the hero of last season’s final, came out for a seemingly innocuous long ball and chested it weakly onto his side. Bartholomew Ogbeche, who had been in an internal battle all season with Adam Le Fondre for a place in the starting lineup, picked up the loose ball. He still had a lot of work to do with defenders scrambling back into place but sat both the keeper and Tiri down before gliding past Pritam Kotal. His final touch was just a bit heavy though and before the Nigerian could reach the ball, Bipin Singh arrived to lash the ball in at the far post. The former ATK player has been the most improved Indian player in the league under Lobera’s tutelage and it was a fitting end to the season for the Manipuri winger.
Bhattacharya pipped Amrinder Singh to the Golden Glove award on minutes per goal conceded but it was the Punjabi stopper who had the last laugh. As he lifted the glistening ISL trophy over his head for the first time, the moment heralded Mumbai’s entry into the elite. The city might be struggling with a flailing footballing infrastructure, scarcity of professional clubs, insufficient local league games and a lack of crowds at matches. This did not stop the City Football Group, however, from making Mumbai an outpost in their ever-burgeoning empire. And now, they have the country’s top-tier title to show for their efforts.
Image Credit – Official Indian Super League Twitter Page