The last time Mourtada Fall and Mumbai City played Kerala Blasters, it had not gone to plan.
The game happened on December 19, and until then, City had been flying. Six games played, five wins, including a 5-1 evisceration of ATK Mohun Bagan that ended with the sacking of ATKMB coach Antonio Habas. They were leading the league as comfortably as they had last season, if not more, and it looked like it'd be an easy shield defence. They were playing a heady brand of football, combining the tiki-taka of ex-manager Sergio Lobera and the gegenpressing philosophy of current boss Des Buckingham.
Then, the Blasters happened.
Fall lasted just 50 minutes, sent off for an unwieldy tackle on Jorge Pereyra Diaz. At that point, the Blasters were already 2-0 up, and had utterly dominated the game. Diaz, Alvaro Vazquez, Adrian Luna and Sahal Abdul Samad had run City's defence ragged. It had been Fall's worst game in two and a bit seasons in India. The game ended 3-0.
"When you lose, though, one day can feel like a year. That's the thing about the bubble. If you are not strong in the head, my friend, you go down, eh."
It set off a spiral that saw Mumbai win none of their next six games. They lost heavily to underperformers Odisha FC (2-4, without Fall) and Bengaluru FC (0-3, with him). They drew with bottom sides SC East Bengal, NorthEast United (twice) as well as with the by-now-Juan-Ferrando-led ATK Mohun Bagan.
Add to that the pressures of living in a bubble, especially one that had been heavily compromised, league wide. "It's difficult, not easy at all," says Fall. "There's no change for the mind, there's nothing different about each day. Especially when you lose... you play badly, you come back and it's the same routine. You cannot forget, you cannot move on."
"In the bubble, if you win everything's good. Like last year! Even if you wanted me to stay [in the bubble] for a year, no problem!" he says, breaking into a laugh. Which is quickly replaced with the seriousness you associate with the captain of India's defending champions. "When you lose, though, one day can feel like a year. That's the thing about the bubble. If you are not strong in the head, my friend, you go down, eh."
Mourtada Fall is nothing if not 'strong in the head'. For him, that's an essential part of the professionalism that should come with this job of kicking a ball around. "We are professionals, we need to adapt. There are no excuses. You always need to teach your mind to be positive, to constantly fight the negativity."
"We had started [the season] very well. But for every big team, there will always be tough moments. Football is lose, win or draw. It's unpredictable. Sometimes you can play badly and win. Sometimes you can play really well and lose." Which brings him to one thing he believes is in every player's control. Their own work ethic. "The only chance you have is to work hard, if you want to come back. If you let your head bow down, you cannot. Everything depends on your focus."
Easier said than done, of course, all this fighting negativity and channeling your focus. Yet, he had shouldered the burden as a senior player, constantly talking to the youngsters. He reminded them that the league was tight, that "you can't celebrate anything if you win" nor can you let defeats weigh you down, that "this year was just crazy."
Des Buckingham and the City management had seen this up-close and offered him a one-year contract extension. "It's based upon what I see him bring to this group in the short time I've been here," says Buckingham. "And that's true leadership... how he goes about his business away from the field, which obviously nobody really sees... The way he is able to engage with his teammates and the staff, and the way he leads by example not just by words, but by actions and that's what he takes on the field."
It was accepted immediately, Fall feeling wanted, needed. Plus the Champions League adventure that beckoned, a "new challenge."
"The only chance you have is to work hard, if you want to come back. If you let your head bow down, you cannot."
And so head down, Fall and his teammates worked and worked till the streak was finally broken. Chennaiyin 0 - 1 Mumbai City, February 6. Vikram Pratap Singh got the goal, Fall ensured it was a clean sheet.
That night he went back to his hotel room and saw his nation win their first ever Africa Cup of Nations trophy. "That day was my day! I win a game, Senegal win [AFCON]! I was very happy, very happy. You saw how the country went crazy, people coming out everywhere. I miss it so much, eh. I am alone, my family is there... but this is life, this is life."
Since the Chennaiyin game, Mumbai have won three of their four games, the only loss coming in a tight game decided by a last-minute winner against current league leaders Jamshedpur FC. They have been solid at the back, and potent up front. Fall has looked like he's getting back to the imperious form he showed in the early stages. They are fourth currently, league shield aspirations gone but needing to hold their position to get the chance to defend their ISL trophy.
At which point, enter, stage left, the Kerala Blasters. Again.
On Wednesday, City and Blasters will go at it. The Blasters are fifth, a point behind, desperate to make the playoffs after a season where they've played some of the best football in their short history.
Standing in their way, though, will be Mourtada Fall. And he will want his revenge.