Bengaluru FC lead the way in India’s disjointed, 'farcical' league system

Bengaluru FC, led by coach Albert Roca, are leading the way in the Indian Super League. (AFP)
Updated 17 February 2018
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Bengaluru FC lead the way in India’s disjointed, 'farcical' league system

BENGALURU, India: Bengaluru FC, as has so often been the case this season, dominated possession during their Indian Super League (ISL) match against nearest rivals Pune FC on Friday night. But even as their five-match winning run in the league came to an end after a 1-1 draw, there was no great angst on the face of coach Albert Roca.
Frank Rijkaard’s assistant at Barcelona during the golden years when Ronaldinho and Co. were bringing home the Champions League, the 55-year-old Roca prowled the touchline menacingly as the hardcore fans in the West Block kept chanting his name. And no wonder, as Bengaluru’s progress to the top of the ISL is little short of a fairytale.
Formed in 2013, and bankrolled by the Jindal South West Group, the club won two titles in the country’s other professional league (the I-League) under the guidance of Ashley Westwood, a graduate of Manchester United’s academy. Now, under Roca, who last season led the side to a second Federation Cup — India’s answer to the FA Cup — Bengaluru play a far more sophisticated, possession-based game. Given the resources at their disposal, it would be sacrilege to call it the “Barcelona way,” but you can see the influence in the way Roca sets up his teams and the emphasis they have on keeping the ball. But, given the context of football in India, theirs should also be a cautionary tale.
Come the end of last year’s I-League season, Bengaluru had negotiated their entry into the rival ISL. But while they were drafted in as the league expanded from eight teams to 10, India’s two most storied and historic clubs — Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan and East Bengal — were kept out in the cold.
Meanwhile, the ISL had not been recognized by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for its first three seasons, despite hyperbolic marketing positioning it as the country’s “premier” competition. Bengaluru, who retained a significant number of the players who finished fourth in their final I-League season, have made a mockery of that notion, storming to a five-point lead at the top of the table. They have also scored 31 goals in their 16 games, with the Venezuelan Miku accounting for 12. Sunil Chhetri, the 33-year-old veteran and crowd favorite, has nine.

Adding to the bizarre situation in Indian football at the moment, the ISL and the I-League have run concurrently this season, leaving fans in cities that host both leagues in quite a quandary. And it is the ISL that has suffered most, with attendances markedly down on last season. The average crowd this term has been a little over 15,000, compared with just over 21,000 in 2016-17. The biggest crowd of the season so far (37,986) was in Kochi on New Year’s Eve as Kerala Blasters lost 3-1 to Bengaluru.
Contrast that with last season when 54,913 watched the Blasters’ goalless draw with Delhi Dynamos, or the season before when 68,340 watched Atletico de Kolkata beat Chennaiyin FC 2-1, and a worrying picture begins to emerge. This year, defending champions Atletico de Kolkata have had a shocking season and have no chance of making the playoffs. Teddy Sheringham, appointed as coach last July, was sacked 10 games in with the side in eighth place. And former Bengaluru coach Westwood’s interim tenure has been even worse, with three defeats and a draw.
And yet, over in the much-maligned I-League, where some of Indian football’s most famous clubs have had to shut up shop in the past decade, there has been a resurgence in spectator interest this season. Despite both Kolkata giants — Bagan and East Bengal — being well off the pace set by NEROCA FC and Minerva Punjab, a whopping 64,630 turned up to watch the two sides in India’s most famous football derby. The average I-League attendance of 9,670 is also a marked improvement on last season’s 5,233.
But what those numbers tell you is that Indian football can hardly afford the farcical situation where two leagues are fighting for both attention and sponsors in a cricket-mad country. At some point, the AFC will have to take a firm stance. As things stand, Bengaluru, whose Federation Cup triumph came in the I-League, are now playing in the 2018 AFC Cup as an ISL representative. And having already made the ISL semifinals, India’s first professionally run outfit are showing the rest of the country the way to do things.
While other ISL clubs have wasted money on has-beens over the years, Bengaluru have been the team with a plan. And under Roca’s calm guidance, they look a good prospect to go all the way. What happens to Indian football thereafter — with marquee clubs excluded from the top table — is another matter.


Paving the way for Mo Salah

Updated 18 June 2018
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Paving the way for Mo Salah

  • Long before the Liverpool star arrived in the UK, a handful of Egyptian players made the same journey
  • Mohammed Salah has the fame and, with a reported salary of £200,000 (SR1 million) per week, he certainly has the fortune.

LONDON: The World Cup is underway, and the hopes of football-mad Arab nations are rising. Many eyes are on Mohamed Salah, star of the Egyptian team and of the English Premier League, to elevate the reputation of Arab footballers.

At Liverpool, the 25-year-old is adored. But he is not the first Egyptian that British football fans have taken to their hearts.

Long, long before Mo, there was Mustafa Mansour and Mohamed Latif in the 1930s and before them, there was Hussein Hegazi and Tewfik Abdullah. All were Egyptians foot- ballers who brought their dazzling skills to British clubs.

One was a striker who had poems written about him; one graced the cover of the top football magazine of the time; one was a goalkeeper regarded as a trailblazer for African football who later served as a government minister, and one played for Glasgow Rangers and went on to become his country’s top football commentator.

 

Hussein Hegazi

Hegazi was the first. Born into a wealthy aristocratic Cairo family in 1891, he honed his footballing skills by playing against British soldiers and by the time he arrived in England in 1911 to study engineering at University College, London, he was already known in Egypt as a prolific goal scorer, notching up 57 in one season. He was also a top-class runner, winning the national championships in the quarter mile and half-mile (equivalent to today’s 400 meters and 800 meters) four years in a row.

How he came to the attention of Dulwich Hamlet FC, a well-established non-league club in South London is unclear but he made his debut with them on Sept. 23, 1911, to great acclaim. With his wiry build (he weighed only 60 kg), he was de- scribed as having “a lightning drive.”

A match report in the local newspa- per, the “South London Press,” said: “The Egyptian gave a splendid exhibition... simply conjured with the ball.” Another report from Oct. 13 called him “the thinking man’s footballer.”

The fans loved him as much as the pundits and promptly nicknamed him Nebuchadnezzar.

It was not long before a much bigger club noticed him. Fulham, then in the Second Division (today’s Championship), were eager to sign him up, especially after Hegazi scored in his try-out for them against Stockport County on Nov. 11.

Alarmed at the prospect of losing him, Dulwich Hamlet manager Pa Wilson turned up at Hegazi’s lodgings. After listening to Wil- son’s pleadings, Hegazi felt honor- bound to stay at Dulwich.

“I was in a difficulty for I wanted to play very much in league football and at the same time I did not want to leave Dulwich Hamlet, who have been very good to me,” he said. Wilson called Hegazi “as honorable a man as ever stepped on to a football field” and a writ- er for the “Athletic News” was moved to write a five-verse poem in tribute.

Hegazi did two European tours with Dulwich Hamlet and also played for the London county team. In 1913, he embarked on studies at Cambridge University but left before the end of his first year, though not before winning a Blue with the university football team. He played for the national Egyptian team in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics and finally hung up his boots in 1932, aged 40. He died in 1958. A street in the Garden City area of Cairo is named after him.

 

Tewfik Abdullah

Tewfik Abdullah (sometimes spelled Tawfik Abdallah), the second Egyp- tian to play in Britain, was encour- aged by his friendship with Tommy Barbour, a Scottish soldier in the Brit- ish army serving in Egypt who also played fullback for Derby County.

Born in Cairo in June 1896, Abdul- lah, a midfielder, began his career with Cairo club. Mokhtalat, and played for the national team at the 1920 Olympics. He also played against the British army, where he met Barbour.

Abdullah made his English league debut in October 1920 against Manchester City and was instantly nicknamed “Toothpick.”

One possibly apocryphal tale about his first game relates that he came out on to the pitch asking, “Where’s me camel?” It transpired he was, in fact, asking, “Where’s Mick Hamill?” the City player he had been assigned to mark.

Abdullah scored in the match, which Derby won 3-0. The following month, he was on the cover of the magazine “Topical Times,” with the pyramids and the Sphinx in the background, as part of a feature on the fashion for recruiting players “from far afield.”

In 15 appearances for Derby County, Abdullah never scored again and in 1922 he joined Scottish Second Division side, Cowdenbeath, where he was nick- named “Abe” and was awarded the ultimate acco- lade when a local leading miner named one of his racing greyhounds Abe in his honor. Beset by injury, Abdullah only

stayed one season in Scotland. In 1923, he joined Welsh non-league Bridgend Town and a year later he was back in the league with Hartlepool, in the northeast of England. He made 11 ap- pearances, scored once and at the end of the 1924 season crossed the Atlan- tic to join the exotically named Provi- dence Clamdiggers.

He played for four more teams in the US and went on to coach, but America’s racial segregation laws — which meant he was often not allowed to stay in the same hotels as his white colleagues — dismayed him. He returned to Egypt in the late 1920s for a year but crossed the Atlantic again to join Canadian side Montreal Carsteel, spending the rest of his playing career there.

After retiring he managed Farouk Club (an old name for Zamalek) and in 1940 became manager of the Egyp- tian national team, taking them to the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

More than a decade passed before an Egyptian again donned football boots for a British side — and then came a pair of them.

Goalkeeper Mustafa Kamel Man- sour and winger Mohammad La- tif were in Egypt’s 1934 World Cup squad, which was coached by Scots- man James McCrea.

 

Mustafa Kamel Mansour

Mansour, born in Alexandria in Au- gust 1914, began his club career with Al-Ahly. Latif, five years older, played for El-Mokhtalat, (another of Zama- lek’s past names). Encouraged by their mentor, McCrae, they arrived in Scotland in 1935 and enrolled at Jordanhill College to train as physi- cal education teachers.

The Glasgow Rangers wanted them both but Mansour instead chose to join Queen’s Park, Scotland’s oldest club and also the only amateur team in the Scottish professional league. He even turned down the huge sum of £5,000 — equivalent to around £340,000 ($455,000 or SR1.7million) today — to turn professional.

“It was a record at the time but I did not want to play for money,” said Mansour in a BBC interview in 2002. How times have changed.

He spent two seasons at Queen’s Park, where he was affectionately known as Tuffy, and played in al- most 50 league matches and eight Cup ties. He was also a popular adult member of the 72nd Glasgow Scout Troop.

Mansour returned to Egypt when war broke out in 1939, but his foot- balling career was far from over. Af- ter his playing days ended, he quali- fied as an international referee and then managed his old club, Al-Ahly. He was a top-ranking figure in Egyp- tian football and from 1958-61 he was secretary-general of the Confed- eration of African Football. He also served as a minister in the Egyptian government.

He died in 2002, a few weeks af- ter the interview with the BBC and a month before his 88th birthday.

 

Mohammad Latif

Five years older than his compa- triot, Mohammad Latif was from Beni Suef, south of Cairo, and by his early 20s, he was one of the best footballers in the country. His three goals against a British mandate football team during qualification rounds secured both Egypt’s place in the 1934 World Cup and Latif’s place in the squad.

The first non-white to play for Glasgow Rangers made his first team debut on Sept. 14, 1935, the same day that Hitler addressed 54,000 people at a mass rally in Nuremberg, an- nouncing laws against non-whites.

Unfortunately, Latif’s Rangers ca- reer did not progress well. His play- ing was described as “impetuous” and after that first outing, he was left out of the first team for seven months. His next game was also his last and he returned to Egypt to pre- pare for the 1936 Olympics in Ber- lin. He and Mansour both made the squad.

Latif rejoined El-Mokhtalat and continued playing for them until 1945. He moved into coaching and also attained international standard as a referee, before embarking on yet another successful career as a football commentator, achieving fame not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world as “the sheikh of commentators.”

Mohammed Salah may have the fame and, with a reported salary of £200,000 (SR1 million) per week, he certainly has the fortune.

The names of Hegazi, Abdullah, Mansour and Latif may not echo so resoundingly through the annals of footballing history. But they were pathfinders and admirable ambassa-dors for Arab sportsmen. And that is a hard act to follow.