Booth's boys do Mumbai proud
"Sport means everything to the people of this city," commented Sachin Tendulkar, one of the greatest cricketers in history, after inspiring Mumbai to a record 37th Ranji Trophy last year. Such is the batsman's popularity in his place of birth that he has been known to wear a wig to the cinema in order to hide his identity.
But if the top cricketers receive treatment befitting movie stars in the home of Bollywood, the same cannot be said for footballers. The National Football League title headed to India's most populous city only once, courtesy of Mahindra United, and the competition was monopolised by teams from Kolkata and Goa.
There is, however, a new face threatening to break this dual-city dominance. The inception of the I-League in 2007, to replace the National Football League, coincided with the inauguration of Mumbai FC, whose ambition was to "attain world standards as a professional club and make our city proud".
Starting off in the Indian second flight, they had a mountain to climb. "
"Fortunately the league's kick-off got postponed. Then it got delayed again. This gave us the time we needed to work with the players, to mould them into a winning team, and by the time the league kicked off we were ready." And that they were, cruising to promotion under Booth's masterful guidance at the first time of asking.
Mumbai nevertheless faced a baptism of fire in the I-League, trips to Kolkata to take on the National Football League's two most successful sides, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, preceding a short visit to Mahindra United.
The consensus was that they would be made to feel distinctly unwelcome, but it took the newcomers a mere nine minutes to serve notice of their arrival, Ghanaian Abel Hammond rocketing the ball into the top corner of the Mohun Bagan net after a neat one-two with compatriot Felix Aboagye. The former then turned provider, supplying the cross from which Kalai Kulothungan's diving header doubled their lead en route to a 2-1 victory.
Aboagye's strike then earned them a 1-0 win at East Bengal, before Kulothungan scored the only goal against their cross-city rivals to send Mumbai level on points with SC Goa at the division's summit. "We're very pleased to have taken maximum points," said Booth, who has also coached in England, Ghana, the Maldives, Brunei, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Vietnam.
"It was a very tough start - Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mahindra are three of the biggest clubs in India. But we always go out to win. We've been very organised and played well as a team, and the attitude of the players has been excellent. Nobody expected us to come away with three wins.
"Football is big in Kolkata and Goa, but here it's always been about cricket. We've been working to get kids playing football from an early age here, and now we have more and more schools teaching football to youngsters.
Success nonetheless creates expectation, and in just 270 minutes of football, the talk has turned from whether Mumbai can survive in the I-League to whether they can become champions. "Privately we've discussed winning the title, " affirmed Booth.
"It's something we'd like to achieve but we're keeping our feet on the ground. No-one wins a league after only a few games. Our difficult run is never-ending, but our aim over the next five or six matches is to put daylight between ourselves and our rivals."
Mumbaikars certainly have reason to be proud of the boys in yellow.