Fans rally to save India’s Muslim-rooted football club

A recent flood of publicity has temporarily revived the club’s fortunes, writes Samanth Subramanian.

Taro Hasegawa (number 30) of Mohammedan Sporting jumps over Kinshuk Debnath of Mohun Bagan during a match on March 8 in Kolkata, India. Subhendu Ghosh / Getty Images
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NEW DELHI // Some late heroics from international supporters may have saved Mohammedan Sporting, a 123-year-old football club that was once a rallying point for India’s Muslims.

Just two weeks ago the club was facing dissolution after the chairman, Sultan Ahmed, said Mohammedan Sporting’s senior team would not participate in the upcoming season because of a lack of cash.

The news of a scuppered season came as a shock to the Indian sport fans, and it prompted a run of premature obituaries in the media.

That flood of publicity has temporarily revived the club’s fortunes. On October 25, Mr Ahmed said that sponsors have begun to knock on the club’s doors, and that Mohammedan Sporting would participate in the season after all.

"I've got calls from people in Mumbai, Delhi, Spain, even Nigeria, all wanting to chip in with money," Moinuddin bin Moksud, the club's general secretary, told The National on Wednesday. "One day I woke up and saw 500 messages in my Facebook inbox, all promising support."

Mohammedan Sporting was founded in Kolkata — then Calcutta — in 1891, which makes it older than Fifa. In the ferment leading up to Indian independence, as communities sought to establish political identities for themselves, Muslim backers funded the team, hoping to turn it into a focal point for Indian Muslims.

Through the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the club tasted some success. But in 1932, after SA Aziz took over the club’s management and scoured India for high-quality Muslim football players,

Mohammedan Sporting’s fortunes changed.

The club won the league title five years in a row, beginning in 1934.

In 1940, Mohammedan Sporting won the Durand Cup, a tournament that British clubs had won ever since it was established in 1888.

Calcutta’s elite Muslims vied with each other to support the club.

One was elected the club's president; another, a rich merchant, gave a building over to accommodate the players. But the club also gained feverish popularity among less wealth Muslims. When Mohammedan Sporting won the Calcutta League in 1938, the newspaper Ananda Bazar Patrika reported at the time, thousands of Muslim supporters "marched in procession with a band and rent the skies with tremendous shouts of jubilation".

Inevitably, the club also became a fulcrum of politics during India’s independence struggle.

The Muslim League, a dominant political party, “came to use the club as a cultural example of Muslim superiority in Bengal”, Kausik Bandhyopadhyay, a sports historian, wrote in an essay published last year. The club’s victories “over strong European and Hindu teams…instilled a spirit of self-confidence and pride in the Muslims of Bengal”.

In 1947, when Bengal was divided into East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and the Indian state of West Bengal, the club lost many of its wealthiest Muslim patrons, who chose to move to the new Muslim nation of Pakistan.

Its reputation remained high, though. Muslim players from East and West Pakistan, as well as from across India, filled the team.

The Prince of Nepal, an ardent follower of the club, travelled to Kolkata to become its first Hindu player.

“Although it continued to be called Mohammedan Sporting, the club wasn’t a sectarian club after 1947,” Mr Moksud said. “Now we have thousands of fans who are Hindus. Even in my own team of officials, we have Hindus as well as Christians.”

This week, Mr Moksud, who is an architect, will travel to Dubai for business. But he also hopes to meet some investors who have shown interest in keeping Mohammedan Sporting alive.

“In a way, we’re very thankful to the people who wrote that the club would be shutting down,” Mr Moksud said with a laugh.

But the money has yet to roll in, and Mohammedan Sporting has debts to pay.

Its finances have been hit by a financial crisis that has swept West Bengal, and because it is named for the Prophet, it cannot accept sponsorship from liquor companies, which fund its rivals.

Some players and officials have not been paid for three months, and Mohammedan Sporting ran a net loss of between 15-20 million rupees (Dh900,000-Dh1.2m) last year.

The club has been funding itself on an annual fee of 516 rupees levied upon its 15,000 associate members and 2,000 life members — an amount that had not changed since 1976.

The fee will now be 10,000 rupees.

In addition to the annual fee, life members had previously paid 10,000 rupees. New life members will now pay 25,000 rupees.

“The financial situation is still delicate,” Mr Ahmed said. “But it’s heartening to see that people are still interested in keeping the club alive. I hope we can build on this.”

The club’s fans hope so too.

“It shocked us and broke our hearts when these stories about the club’s closure began to do the rounds,” said Mohammad Ismail, 41, a New Delhi businessman who has supported the club since childhood.

“I’m glad that has all been put to rest. Now I hope they can pick themselves up and win some games.”