How times change, right? At the end of last season, Bengaluru FC were celebrating their second I-League triumph in three years of existence, while Aizawl FC had a debut season to forget and were relegated to the second division.
A decision from the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to bring in teams from all regions of the nation paved the way for Aizawl to be reinstated to the top division. They promptly roped in Khalid Jamil as the gaffer, who had ended his partnership with Mumbai FC after many years of mediocre play and near escapes.
One could be forgiven for mistaking that Aizawl were in the league just to make up the numbers which were severely depleted by Salgaocar and Dempo pulling out. But in hindsight, that decision by the AIFF has paved way for the minnows from Mizoram to strongly shake the status quo held by the Kolkatan giants and Bengaluru FC at the top of the table.
As for Jamil, the upcoming clash against Bengaluru gives a great measure of how his fortunes have changed. Both Jamil as a manager and Aizawl as a club have usually enjoyed their outings against Bengaluru, causing quite a few upsets in the past. But this is the first time either of them comes into this tie at this stage of a season placed above the Steelers on the table.
The location is even more special for Jamil, as the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru was the venue where his short international career reached its pinnacle, years before he got involved in a controversy at the same place.
On 8th April 2001, India were playing against a mighty United Arab Emirates (UAE) side in a World Cup qualifier. Deep into the second half, a Khalid Jamil throw-in went straight to I.M.Vijayan, who lobbed it to Jules Alberto. The Goan's powerful right-footer gave opponent custodian Mutaz Abdulla almost no chance as the ball hit the back of the net. That was the solitary goal of the match and India notched up a memorable 1-0 win.
Only six weeks later, at the same venue, Jamil was at the thick of the things again. India needed a 6-0 win against Brunei to secure a place in the next round and desperately needed an early goal to get things started. In the 12th minute of the match, a throw-in by the current Mumbai FC coach saw the linesman on the far side raise the flag for offside but the referee waived play on, which led to Jules Alberto drawing the first blood in the match. The Blues cruised to a 5-0 victory, which remains the nation's best ever result in a World Cup qualifier.
In a nutshell, the Kuwait born midfielder was at the center of proceedings and played the full 180 minutes in two of India's most memorable wins. However, the scenario changed completely in the 2014-15 I-League season.
In a fiesty tie between the 2013-14 defending I-League champions Bengaluru FC and Khalid's Mumbai FC, his antics on the touchline and his team's time wasting technique on the pitch saw the home spectators get infuriated and a Bengaluru FC supporter hurled a waterbottle aiming for him. Though the missile missed him, Jamil's subsequent reaction evoked much discussion.
That evening etched his name in the list of people most disliked by the West Block Blues. While the former India international has now shifted allegiance to Aizawl FC and would feel that he deserves a bit more respect from the city which played host to two of his most effective performances for the national team, the Bengaluru FC faithful will be in no mood to receive him with open arms.
While the Kolkatan derby, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan squaring off against each other, is the undisputed biggest and most anticipated game of the Indian footballing fixture lists, it wouldn’t be surprising if Trevor Morgan and Sanjoy Sen were to spend the time before their game kicks off updating themselves with the score from Bangalore.
Bitter rivals with Bengaluru FC, the two Kolkatan clubs might actually look up to the southern side for a favour come Sunday! Bengaluru, out of title contention, sit further from the top spot than they are from the bottom-placed Mumbai FC, but might still have a role to play as this season goes down to the wire.
Bengaluru haven’t quite been themselves this season, with a porous defense not being helped by a misfiring attack, but it looks like they have managed to put the pieces together finally. That makes their rivals facing off in Kolkata all the more hopeful that Aizawl would drop points!
With just four games to go for the curtains to fall for the season, a win on Sunday could boost Aizawl’s chances of pulling off the unlikely and bag the silverware. It will also mark a full circle for Khalid Jamil, who would have again lived a high in the city that brings the best out of him!