Harmanjot Khabra of Bengaluru FC (BFC) will be missing Saturday's Indian Super League final against Chennaiyin FC, his previous ISL club, due to a rib injury that has kept him out of football since February. His fondest memory in four years of the ISL remains the last final he was involved in, when Chennaiyin stunned FC Goa with two late goals to overturn a 2-1 deficit in the 90th minute to win their maiden title in 2015.
"The last moment when we scored -- how, man? Even we were in shock when [Stiven] Mendoza scored. We were totally in another world after the final whistle," says Khabra, remembering how it looked all over when Goa's Jofre Gonzalez placed a free kick into the net in the dying stages and then was carried on the shoulders of his teammates. "They had expected this title to come their way. Their owners, including Virat Kohli, were already celebrating that it was done, but the football gods were smiling on us, and it was a miracle."
It wasn't just the unlikely win in the final under coach Marco Materazzi that seemed miraculous. With 10 games of the league stages gone, Chennaiyin were rooted to the bottom of the points table after losing their second match of the regular season to champions ATK (formerly Atletico de Kolkata), when inspiration arrived through co-owner Vita Dani. "[I] still remember ma'am [Dani] came to us after we had lost to Atletico, and said, 'I have already challenged the Atletico owners that we will face them again in the finals.' We were thinking, 'There's no way.' When you get that kind of motivation -- we had to win every match and we did it."
Sunil Chhetri steps up on big night for Bengaluru once again
Chennai closed the season out with wins over Kerala Blasters, Delhi Dynamos, Mumbai City FC and FC Pune City. The last game brought drama of its own, as the team had to travel by road following their win over Mumbai due to the unprecedented floods that affected normal life in the city, and forced a postponement of their 'home' leg in the semi-final to Pune. "We first travelled to Tirupati [by road], and then to Pune [by a chartered flight]. It was a different scenario that time. It was an unforgettable experience," he says. That semi-final, ironically enough, was a 3-0 win over Atletico.
All of Khabra's 13 appearances for BFC this season came within the first three months of the league, and included nine wins and all of their four defeats thus far. One of the losses came against Chennaiyin in Bengaluru in an acrimonious encounter, settled by a late Dhanpal Ganesh goal. Khabra's last start was in the 3-1 win away in Chennai, where he was guilty of conceding a penalty against Ganesh, but goalkeeper Gurpreet Sandhu pulled off a save off the spot against India teammate Jeje Lalpekhlua.
"They were a little defensive [here], but I want to congratulate them because they have made it to the final," Khabra says. "They have had a hard season too. Now they are high on confidence, the way they have beaten Goa, but this is a final. It is always a new start and a new match. Good luck to them, but the way the team has played, I think BFC deserve it more."
And his standout moment of this season? "When you enjoy your football, you enjoy every moment," he says. "You have some plans, you make strategies and you have to do your job. That makes a good game and entertains the supporters too. The games against Mumbai and Delhi -- they are good teams -- and we have beaten the best teams. [Against] NorthEast, I assisted [Sunil] Chhetri paaji. He came to hug me and that was the most memorable moment."