Past few seasons have not gone well for Mohun Bagan. One of the traditional heavy weights in Indian football, the Green & Maroons have gone three consecutive seasons without winning a single major trophy. While a major reason for this lack of success has been faulty team composition, a small amount of it is also because of misfortune, be it injuries or refereeing gaffes. Sports has always had a strong connection with superstition and Mohun Bagan officials are not exempt from it which was evident when they brought a tantric to the club premise so that the club’s bad times end. It didn’t work. The seed to the current discontent in the club may have been sown more than a decade back. In a bizarre way, Mohun Bagan has somehow got tangled with a revolutionary Hungarian coach and a mediocre Nigerian central defender, in a web of bad karma, if one chooses to be superstitious.
Bela Guttmann is one of the most famous coaches in the history of football. Born at the turn of the 20th century Guttmann had a 40 year long coaching career which saw him manage more than two dozen clubs in South America and Europe. Controversial but brilliant, the Hungarian is widely credited with perfecting the 4-2-4 formation during his stay in Brazilian club Sao Paolo. Guttmann’s assistant in Sao Paolo Vicente Feola, would later use the same system to great effect with Brazilian national team in 50s. Guttmann also won back to back European titles with Benfica. Yet, the first page of Guttmann’s Google search page doesn’t give any of these achievements the highest priority. Instead, almost 95% of the results deal with one of the greatest myths in European football – the Guttmann Curse.
After arriving from Porto to Benfica in 1959, Guttmann famously fired 20 players and formed his own team. After winning the league in his first season Guttmann put his cross hairs on European Champions Cup – a tournament which no club other than Real Madrid had won at that time. Playing breathtaking attacking football Benfica scored 23 goals on their way to the final before facing Barcelona, who were favorites after becoming the first team to knock Real Madrid out in European Cup. Guttmann’s compatriot, the great Sandor Kocsis gave Barca the lead in 20th minute but Benfica would score three times by the hour mark to become the first team to become European champions with an indigenous team.
Next year, they were back in the final again, arguably better than ever with a precocious talent named Eusebio in their line-up. Another Spanish team faced them in the final – five time winners Real Madrid with bulk of their legendary Galacticos squad while a young Johan Cryuff worked as a ball boy on sidelines. By the 38th minute Puskas had completed his hattrick as Real looked cruising towards their sixth title, leading 3-2. In second half the Eusebio show began. He made it 4-3 by converting a penalty which he himself won after symbolically, racing past Di Stefano. Two minutes later Di Stefano turned towards Puskas and said “We are done” as Eusebio scored Benfica’s fifth. The change of guard was formally completed and Benfica were the new kings of Europe.
In sixth issue of The Blizzard, Luis Catarino attributes Guttmann’s obsession with material rewards to the money he lost in Wall Street crash in 30s followed by experiences during Holocaust. Indeed, while managing Ciocanul Bucharest in 1946 Guttmann asked to be paid in fresh vegetables when famine was rampant in Romania! After winning his second European Cup Guttmann asked for a pay rise. Benfica presidents didn’t oblige, after all their team had just started to peak and could have done well without a coach. Guttmann left with a parting shot – “Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champion”. Thus began his curse.
Benfica were back in European Cup final following year and looked like proving their ex-manager wrong as Eusebio gave them the lead against AC Milan. However, a brace from Jose Altafini ensured Benfica would lose in a European final for the first time. Two years later Benfica would fail to break AC Milan’s cross town neighbor’s Catenaccio defence in the final, losing 1-0. In 1968, they reached the final for 5th time that decade, yet again losing – this time to Matt Busby’s Manchester United. Despite having Eusebio in his peak, Benfica had not failed to prove Guttmann wrong despite reaching most finals in that decade since he left.
Thirty years later they were back in the final, losing to Guus Hiddink’s PSV Eindhoven in Stuttgart. What was just a coincidence before was now sending alarm bells ringing in the club. In 1990 Eusebio prayed in front of Guttmann’s grave before they played Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan in the final. Still no forgiveness – Milan won 1-0.
Since the Guttmann curse Benfica has reached five European Cup finals as well as two UEFA Cup finals. They have lost every single time, a record shared with no other club.
Late 1990s and early 2000s was a golden era for Mohun Bagan. Subrata Bhattacharya had then taken over and would go on to deliver every trophy that could be won in Indian football in his three year stint. In 2001/02 season Mohun Bagan won the Calcutta League with a canter. They had arguably the best midfield in the country with Lolendra Singh, Rennedy Singh and James Singh feeding in-form Jose Barreto, Abulateef Seriki and RC Prakash upfront but they needed defensive reinforcements. This became even clearer when Mohun Bagan defense failed to deal with the pace of Mike Okero (then with ITI) in Durand Cup and lost 2-1 to East Bengal in IFA Shield semi final. In the pre-internet era age the pool of foreigners in India was still considerably small and so Mohun Bagan opted to sign Abdul Wasiu Saliu on Christmas Eve, 2001.
Saliu had played for Tollygunge Agragami in the previous season. Amal Dutta’s almost perverse affinity towards moderately talented but physically imposing African defenders had seen him do reasonably well for the Kolkata club. Tollygunge were looking favorites for relegation at one point but miraculously saved themselves with Saliu playing a vital role. He was a defensive rock as Tollygunge inflicted one of East Bengal’s two defeats that season, winning 1-0 before scoring and assisting a goal each as his club overcame a 2-0 deficit against ITI. He also scored the match winner against defending champions Salgaocar as Tollygunge saved relegation by a mere 2 points. He went off for a short stint to play for Bangladesh Muktijoddha in middle of 2001/02 season before signing for Mohun Bagan for rest of NFL.
The 2001/2002 NFL title race is easily one of the best seen in Indian football till date. Defending champions East Bengal lost pace mid-way as the title race became a three horse affair with Mohun Bagan competing with Vasco SC and Goan champions Churchill Brothers. What was essentially a three horse race till Round-18 became even more intriguing as former winners Salgaocar unexpectedly joined the party with back to back wins over champions elect Churchill Brothers and Vasco in March. Mohun Bagan’s title race was looking in doldrums when they had lost back to back games in February but they lost just once since then and won vital away games in Punjab and the Kolkata derby. With the table in their control, the Green and Maroons travelled to Goa in second week of April to play last two rounds.
Two days before Mohun Bagan faced Salgaocar on 11th April both Vasco and Churchill Brothers registered wins. The points table read – Churchill Brothers 42, Mohun Bagan – 41, Vasco – 40. Victories of Churchill had also practically ended Vasco and Salgaocar’s fledgling hopes. Things started brilliantly for Mohun Bagan as Jose Barreto drew first blood after 2 minutes. He doubled his tally thirteen minutes later before Basudeb Mandal made it 0-3 just before half-hour mark.
And then, it went haywire. Dharmjit Singh, who would later play for Bagan, replaced Ryan D’Souza and Salgaocar gradually took control of midfield. On 32nd minute Sunday Seah made it 1-3, four minutes before half-time Alvito D’Cunha pulled one more back. At 2-3 both teams had all to play for second half. The decisive blow came on 57th minute when dependable Brazilian defender Amauri was sent off for Bagan. Still reeling from the blow Mohun Bagan conceded two more goals between 73rd and 76th minutes as Salgaocar completed one of the greatest comebacks in history of Indian football.
The anxiety and enthusiasm around Mohun Bagan’s final match against Churchill Brothers can only be compared to that of 1911 IFA Shield Final. Without Amauri, Bhattacharya had to start Saliu in central defense. Saliu’s contribution till then had been sparse and unnoticeable. His frank admission that he had problems dealing with aerial balls had become a butt of jokes among Bengali journalists. Few Mohun Bagan fans would have been comfortable knowing he would be facing NFL’s most prolific attack with top scorer Yusif Yakubu in prime form.
The match was dominated by nerves as neither team looked like taking risks. Jose Barreto, Bagan’s top scorer was marked tightly while to his credit, Saliu was doing a good job on Yakubu. Churchill Brothers saw Mahesh Gawli getting sent off on 65th minute. Seven minutes later came the moment which would immortalize Saliu in hearts of every Mohun Bagan fan. Basudeb Mandal floated in a corner from right side. Lacking Gawli’s leadership Churchill Brothers defense hesitated and Saliu rose to head the ball into the net. Nerve wrecking 20 more minutes which saw a Debjit Ghosh goal-line clearance handed Mohun Bagan their third and by far the most memorable NFL title.
Lavish celebrations were planned in club premises after the players returned. Amidst the fanfare of officials seeking spotlight and star players, one man was forgotten. Saliu didn’t receive the rewards or accolades of his goal. Ignored, the Nigerian left in tears. There were rumors that he didn’t even receive his full payments.
Abdul Wasiu Saliu was not a great player by any means. In fact, he was quite mediocre. But his contribution to Mohun Bagan’s title was never rewarded and it seems like the club has found itself in a circle of bad Karma like Benfica did with Guttmann.
Before 2002, Mohun Bagan had won three out of six NFL titles and finished runner-up once. Since that day they have never won the NFL/I-League title again and have seen five different clubs win it. Forget winning, Bagan has never even come close to the title since 2002, except in 2008/09 season. This period has seen the club finish in lower table positions multiple times – 10th (2012/13), 9th (2003/04) and 8th (2004/05). Other than Federation Cup and IFA League, Mohun Bagan hasn’t won any of the trophies consistently. Except 2008/09 season under Karim Bencharifa and an unbeaten IFA League campaign under Amal Dutta Mohun Bagan has also never played the same brand of football as they did in Bhattacharya’s era in early 2000s.
But it’s not just about trophies. Since 2002 Mohun Bagan has seen a steady decay and decline of the values that once set them apart. Problems between officials saw the NFL winning team dismantled completely. Bhattacharya and Barreto, untouchable in those days have been dumped unceremoniously in favor of less competent replacements. In early 2000s officials appointed by the court were running the club because of administrative issues. Coaches have come and gone, often sacked unfairly. Teams are made and remade every season routinely. Club officials, who were at zenith of their popularity in May, 2002 have seen their stock fall sharply. Last year fans came out in numbers to protest against mismanagement in the club and Mohun Bagan officials are perhaps most reviled among clubs in India. Last season saw the club reach a new low as at one point they were staring at relegation. The lack of popularity of Mohun Bagan was also evident during the AIFF meeting to determine their punishment after the events of 9th December 2012. Most of the clubs didn’t side by Mohun Bagan initially and it was clear each had a bone to pick with current officials.
The curse on Benfica has not ended in 50 years – Mohun Bagan’s curse, if it can be called that, has already continued for over a decade. Millions of Green & Maroon fans, worst affected in past 2-3 seasons, will be hoping this poisoned atmosphere around the club goes away sooner than later.