Over a century ago, the IFA Shield produced a remarkable moment in the history of the Indian freedom struggle. Mohun Bagan pulled of a major surprise when it edged past a strong East Yorkshire Regiment side by a score of 2-1 in the final of the tournament in 1911, thereby becoming the first ever Indian side to lift the title. It was a momentous occasion in India’s quest for driving out the British from the country. Albeit on a football field, Bagan’s IFA Shield triumph over the Britons made Indians believe that the Britons were no longer invincible. As far as football itself was concerned, the tournament was the harbinger of a new era for the sport in the country. The IFA Shield, thus, cemented its place in Indian footballing folklore more than a century back.
However, as things stand today, the famous football tournament is only a pale shadow of its former self. The I-League and the Federation Cup have become the two most important footballing events in the country, pushing tournaments like Durand Cup and the IFA Shield into the backseat. However, when it comes to the present frail health of the IFA Shield, the organizers have definitely played a part. Poor organization of the historic competition by the Indian Football Association has left fans wondering if the governing body of football in West Bengal is quite interested in preserving the once-famous tournament. This season’s edition, for instance, was poorly planned. Failure to manage a time slot in between the season that would allow top clubs from across the country take part in it meant that the tournament didn’t really have the strongest of fields. Shillong Lajong, who were supposed to be the only I-League side from outside Kolkata to take part in this seasons’s event, withdrew late on, forcing IFA to rope in I-League 2 side United Sikkim. Moreover, visa-related issues almost forced eventual runners-up Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi to withdraw from the tournament too. These problems eventually forced the organizers to push back the tournament by a few days.
Despite all the issues surrounding IFA Shield, the tournament itself did provide some good bit of football. East Bengal and United SC progressed to the semis from Group A, while Bangladeshi club Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi and Durand Cup champions Mohammedan Sporting finished in the top two in Group B, with Mohun Bagan failing to get past the group after finishing in the third place. In the semis, Dhanmondi pulled off a major shock, thumping former champions East Bengal 3-0, while Mohammedan managed to get the better of United in extra time. United SC defeated East Bengal to take the third place and Mohammedan, thus, had Dhanmondi in their way, in their quest for reclaiming the title they had last won in 1971.
With thousands of their fans backing them from the stands, Mohammedan started the final game slowly. Dhanmondi took the lead in the 28th minute when Haitian forward Norde brilliant curled in a free-kick, silencing the home crowd. The home side, however, settled down soon, started creating a few chances of their own. Their persistence bore fruits soon, as Mehrajuddin Wadoo poked in a cross moments before halftime. The goal shifted the momentum towards Mohammedan, and the Black Panthers looked like the better side in the second half, although they failed to significantly cause trouble in the Dhanmondi goal. In the 80th minute, Mohammedan were at the receiving end of a controversial refereeing decision when Luciano Sabrosa was sent off for a second bookable offence, moments after the sending off of Dhanmondi’s Norde, who had shoved the former on his face. With 90 minutes failing to separate the two sides, the game moved into extra time, where both sides failed to score, taking the game into spot-kicks.
With Mohammedan custodian Luis Barreto picking up a knock during the game, veteran goalkeeper Naseem Akhtar replaced him before the penalty shootout. The latter then produced a couple of saves in the shootout, as Mohammedan Sporting lifted their second title of the year. The Mohammedan fans rushed into the ground as the club ended their 43 year old title drought in the tournament. With relegation still a possibility in the I-League, the Shield victory is no doubt a huge morale-booster for the club ahead of the crucial league run-in. Sanjoy Sen will hope that his men will take inspiration from the title win and produce some better showings in the I-League, in order to ensure at least another season in the country’s top flight.
The IFA Shield, meanwhile, deserves, to be organized in a much better way, keeping in mind its historic contribution to the domestic game. The IFA must realize that this is a tournament which needs to be preserved, and not just organized annually for the sake of it. Better time-slots must be managed for the purpose of wider participation, while proper planning should be done prior to the tournament, in order to prevent the chaos that happened this year.