Picture this: 15 games, 15 wins and 71 goals. That’s Ambernath United-Atlanta FC’s stunning record so far in the Mumbai Football Association’s (MFA) Elite Premier League.
They won the title three games ago, and with two games still to play, they are on track to achieve an unprecedented all-win record in the league.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, their women’s team — Mumbai Knights WFC — too is on course to win the MFA Women’s Premier League with an all-win record. They’ve won all their four matches so far and with two games remaining, a win in their next game will give them the title.
What’s even spectacular is that the squads were put together and began training just a month before the leagues began.
The catalyst to this remarkable season has been their head coach — star former India player Steven Dias.
Dias, who previously was the assistant coach of Jamshedpur FC and later Odisha FC in the Indian Super League (ISL), decided that instead of being the second in command at a team in the country’s top league, he would work to promote footballers from Mumbai.
After his stint with Odisha FC, Dias was contemplating his next destination when he met his old friend from Mumbai, Deepu K, who ran a club called Ambernath United. The team only participated in private tournaments around Mumbai but Deepu, a former footballer himself, wanted to have a team in the city’s top division but only on one condition — he wanted everything about it to be professional.
Several meetings later, Dias, who was sold on the idea the first time it was discussed, put pen to paper. Given a free hand, he went about scouting players and even convincing his former teammates (junior to him) to join the team.
“I’ve always believed that Mumbai football has a lot to offer but sadly their talent was never harnessed,” he told Free Press Journal. “That’s why I’ve taken up this challenge. Being from Mumbai, it pained me to see such talent going to waste.”
The first challenge for Dias and Deepu was finding a way to enter the Elite Premier League of MFA. Normally, teams have to start from the bottom league and work their way up. That's when Allan Contractor came in to help them. His team, Atlanta FC, were already in the Elite League and he agreed to join hands with Ambernath United.
With that taken care of, it was time to build the squad. Since Ambernath United already had quite a few good players part of their roster, it became easier for Dias.
“Apart from those already part of the team, I scouted some games for quite a long time. I also have a lot of friends who readily agreed to be part of the setup. That being said, we have a mix of experience and youth,” said Dias.
Though they had only a month to train before the tournament, Dias was very firm on the kind of football he wanted his team to play.
“I’ve played under foreign coaches who liked playing direct football, long ball etc. I was very clear that I wanted the team to play possession football, short passes and dictate the game. These boys are very fast learners and that’s why we’ve been so successful,” said the 38-year-old Dias.
“What I’ve done is that apart from the five core players, I shuffle my team every match to give everyone an opportunity to showcase their talent. I don’t believe in being a coach who shouts from the sidelines. I can empathise with the players and know how difficult it is to play at this level. They have repaid my faith in them.
“We will definitely try to win all the games in both the men’s and women’s leagues and that will be an achievement I can be will be proud of.
“What makes us even more proud is that spectators who have come to watch the games have told me they enjoy such football. That’s a big positive,” Dias, who was part of the Indian squad that qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup, said.
Their men’s team has been so dominating that it’s no surprise to see two of their players vying for the top-scorer award in the league. Alister Anthony has scored as many as 20 goals while Arif Shaikh has 17 goals.
With the Elite Premier League won, they’re already looking at what’s next for the team.
Deepu says their women’s academy is doing well and hopefully they will qualify for the Indian Women’s League. While the men’s team has qualified for I-League 2, they hope the All India Football Federation (AIFF) gives them a spot directly in the I-League.
“We’re doing everything professionally. Even the contracts that we’ve given has bonuses for goals, assists, clean sheets. We also deduct money for indiscipline or needless booking,” said Dias. “Everything about our club is professionally done despite not having a sponsor”.
So where does the money come from and how much is spent a season?
Deepu, who has his own pharmaceutical company, sponsors all the teams and says he spends close to Rs 35 lakh annually on the teams.
“We take good care of all our players and I’m sure they will vouch for that. I’m just doing this because of my passion for football,” he said, adding that age-group academies for girls and boys are in the pipeline too.
If one person’s passion for football can see a team win in such an astounding fashion, it goes to show that all’s not lost for Mumbai football.