There was just something different in the air at the Mumbai Football Arena in Andheri when Mumbai City took on ATK Mohun Bagan last weekend. It was a battle of the two most expensively assembled sides in the Indian Super League (ISL). Directing them from the sidelines were two of the youngest coaches in the league: Mumbai’s mostly composed and inscrutible Des Buckingham, and Mohun Bagan’s oft-frantic and exuberant Juan Ferrando.
It was also a clash of styles: Buckingham likes his team to keep the ball ticking between the midfield trio of Ahmed Jahouh, Apuia and Greg Stewart, moving it quickly with expansive and expressive football. He once famously said that he would rather win 5-4 than 1-0. At the opposite end, Ferrando seems to have finally accepted the strengths of his ATK Mohun Bagan side.
The once laboriously intricate style he imposed has been replaced with bursts of raw counter-attacking football, using the pace of Liston Colaco, Aashique Kuruniyan, and Asish Rai, allied with the power and panache of Joni Kauko and Hugo Boumous. True to form, in the game, Mumbai City made 113 successful passes into the attacking third, the Mariners only 50. Mumbai also took twice the amount of passes than their opponents to stitch together a move resulting in a shot.
So often in football, too many stars and too many expectations can result in a stuttering game. Not this night though. It ended 2-2 after 90 minutes, but there were 37 shots (12 on target) all night. Five came off the woodwork. A good 27 chances were created, resulting in some quality saves from both keepers. Add to that a red card, brave blocks from defenders, an 89th minute equaliser from a substitute, and an audacious goal from Lallinzuala Chhangte that cannoned off the underside of the crossbar, crossed the goal line, and came back out again. Match officials took a second-and-a-half to give it and send the home fans into raptures. And that was just the 4th minute!
“That was the most entertaining game of football I have ever seen in India,” said lead commentator on the day John Helm, who has covered multiple FIFA World Cups, has been part of the ISL since its inception, and has the most remarkable memory. “The fitness levels, the artistry, the quality and the passion stood out. The game never relented from the first to the last whistle. The fact that the stadium is a proper football arena helped the intensity of the game,” he added.
The artistry Helm mentioned was evident in the way the midfielders played; creating chance after chance with some wonderful passing and footwork in tight areas and long pinpoint balls to exploit the space out wide. Entertaining individual battles in the middle of the pitch just added to the drama.
At the end of it all, former double-winning Mumbai City head coach Sergio Lobera posted the stats graphic along with the words “what a GAME!!” on his social media. ISL pundit Paul Masefield said at half-time that it was the “best first 45 minutes” he’s seen in the ISL, adding that the match was testament to the growing standard of top-tier football in India.
But there is a larger context to the match. Despite Mumbai being a city hungry for a football club they can relate to, they have not created a loud-and-proud atmosphere expected of them – so far. But the 90 minutes on Sunday was different. The ambience was electric, the away fans had turned up in numbers, and the players read the pulse of the setting and responded. This was characterised by Mumbai City centre-back Rostyn Griffiths, who hurdled past the advertising boards to celebrate with fans after he had scored to put his team in the lead. It was a watershed moment, almost as if Griffiths was telling the supporters: come watch us, and we will put on a show.
“Being closer to the action on the pitch, you can see the qualities and quickness of the game more and the atmosphere that is created spills onto the field,” Buckingham told Lounge.He added that the proximity of fans to the pitch creates a “special experience” in Mumbai.
There were so many stories within the big picture. The reigning young player of the month (officially known as Emerging Player of the Month), Mumbai’s centre-back Mehtab Singh, was up against the reigning player of the month (Hero of the month), Dimitri Petratos.
In the middle of the park, Golden Ball (officially known as Hero of the League) winner from the 2019-20 season, Hugo Boumous of ATK Mohun Bagan, was up against the reigning Golden Ball winner Greg Stewart of Mumbai City. Exciting Indian players, many of whom make the national team regularly, were also up for it. The game saw the most shots on goal from open play (30), the most number of shots from inside the box (26) and the most touches inside the box (81). All of them are season records and given that the current season has only just begun, it shows a remarkable desire to fight for three points.
“We have a way we want to play and have recruited players that help us achieve this and I think it is similar for the opposition. When good players understand and are clear on how they can work and contribute towards the team it makes for a wonderful event and [Sunday] night was certainly one of those,” Buckingham said. Word from inside the club is that they realise the game was "a big step towards adding to the rich and ever-growing football culture that Mumbai has".
There have been other watershed games in ISL history, but what set this one apart is the characters in the drama: head coaches who have been retained and know the league, players who have become associated with both sides, and the familiarity of a building rivalry between the two clubs. This matchup was the league shield and ISL trophy decider in 2020-21. For good measure, Mumbai City are also the only ISL team that ATK Mohun Bagan have not yet beaten. The Mariners have lost more games against Mumbai City than any other ISL club.
The Islanders have served up entertaining football more consistently this season, scoring 10 goals and conceding six so far. They came into this game on the back of silencing Kerala Blasters in Kochi 2-0, and drawing against league shield holders Jamshedpur. Along with Hyderabad, they are the only unbeaten team after five league games. The two sides played out a thrilling 3-3 draw earlier in the season.
“Football is an entertaining game and fans want to be entertained and I hope this continues to help bring people to watch us play,” Buckingham said. Given how his side have played so far, that hope must quickly turn to regular reality.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.