'Winning the I-League is a question of perform or perish'

Everything that Mehtab Hossain does on the football field is with a passion not common in the Indian football community.

It is odd, therefore, that his verdict on Sunday's I-League derby between his club and table-toppers East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, the team he used to captain a little over a decade ago, bears a dispassionate sense of detachment.

"I don't think this is one match which will determine the championship. East Bengal-Mohun Bagan matches are always tough to call," Mehtab says.

"Siliguri is like our second home, but the pitch conditions will be a factor. Oi aar ki, dhakka-dhakki hobe, maar-peet hobe (I think it will be rough and will be a bit of a scrap)."

There is a measured sense of calm about one of Indian football's most combative midfielders, and it is perhaps a reflection of his own evolution over the years.

"I still remember my first derby, which was with Mohun Bagan in the Calcutta Football League in 2003," says Mehtab of having to face defeat in the very first such game.

"I was very excited at the prospect of playing alongside Jose Barreto and company. I kept thinking all night long about my game plan against Bhaichung Bhutia, Douglas da Silva and Mike Okoro [three-pronged attacking line that East Bengal had during their consecutive National Football League titles in 2003 and 2004]. So much so, that I couldn't sleep a wink that night.

"I am still always excited at the prospect of playing a derby, but it is not the same as before. I think a lot more professionally now, and more on the lines of what our plans need to be and how to control our emotions on the pitch. Whatever be the match that I am playing, I never consider it a small or a big game. I just have to go out there and give my heart and soul on the pitch."

That heart and soul has been not just a daily affair for Mehtab since his baptism by fire in 2003, but the man who has led both teams in these games knows the pressure attached.

"Wherever you go - to the market, to an office, or just taking a walk with friends - that's all that people remind you of. I once attended a wedding a day before a derby, and even there everybody was just talking about needing to win and wishing that I should score a goal.

"We have come close to winning the championship and slipped up at the last moment so often. We're going well this time, but we must work harder. I think 99% of success is hard work and 1% is luck."

Since signing with East Bengal a decade ago, Mehtab has been an integral part of three Federation Cup-winning teams, but he has also finished runners-up three times in the I-League. Add to that the two runners-up finishes with Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League, and you can sense why he proclaimed at the start of the season that he would move on from the club if he cannot win the title this year.

"This league is the most important thing in the world for me now. Winning the I-League is a question of perform or perish. I have my back to the wall," he says.

"Today Cristiano Ronaldo is arguably the best player in the world, especially after he won the European Championship and the Champions League. Lionel Messi doesn't have a World Cup or a Copa America against his name, and that's why he's not considered at the same level as a Diego Maradona.

"I am not comparing myself to them, but I have taken the responsibility this time for my team. It is now or never."

Mehtab says his wife's family used to be hardened Mohun Bagan supporters before they married.

"Truth be told, they wouldn't even consider giving their daughter's hand in marriage to an East Bengal person. But thanks to me, the entire clan now supports East Bengal," Mehtab chuckles. "They pray for us to win, even if it is against Mohun Bagan.

"I don't want to leave East Bengal, but if we can't win the title this year, I must keep my word."

Mehtab credits his stint with Kerala Blasters, and the team's marquee player Aaron Hughes, for making him a better professional.

"Hughesy has taught me how to handle myself, how to live well, how to carry myself, how to come back from injuries and how to play when carrying a minor niggle. How to approach practice, live inside and outside the field with full commitment."

That commitment will be needed by both teams in a match where Mehtab believes "the team that converts the first 50-50 chance will see out a positive result."

His family and fans will hope it plays to a script similar to his pick of a favourite derby memory - a Federation Cup semifinal win on December 31, 2009 at the Nehru Stadium in Guwahati.

Mehtab and Yusif Yakubu scored over Mohun Bagan in a 2-0 win, part of a campaign where East Bengal won the first of three Cups across the next four years.

"Bhaichungbhai (Bhaichung Bhutia), Nirmal Chhetri and Sanju Pradhan came and jumped all over me. I just couldn't get up. It was the 92nd minute, you see."