For the other half, it was a bittersweet moment. The East Bengal supporter would never have normally celebrated a moment of triumph of their greatest rivals, Mohun Bagan. This rule is as old as Kolkata itself.
But times have changed and success has remained elusive. The last time a Kolkata club won the national league, it was in 2003-04 when East Bengal last brought the title home, when the I-League had not been born yet and it still used to be called the National Football League. For Mohun Bagan, this is a league title after 13 years.
Perhaps East Bengal supporters will take succour in the fact that the title is finally back where it belongs, in India’s spiritual football capital, Kolkata.
A grand legacy of football
Old-timers will fondly remember a time in Kolkata when nothing would matter more than the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal derby.
Theose were the good times. Many of the greatest Indian football players were from Bengal then, whether it was Chuni Goswami, Gostho Pal or PK Banerjee. Bengal only needed to turn up to win the Santosh Trophy – between 1975 and 1980, they won it five times consecutively.
All roads led to the Salt Lake Stadium – and, before that, to the Maidan – which would be packed to the rafters for the all-important match between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. But it wasn’t just about the big two, Kolkata football had other clubs like Mohammedan Sporting and, later, Tollygunge Agragami and even Chiragh United, who held their own against the big two and were never short of providing competition.
The decline and maybe a resurgence?
Things changed considerably in the early 1990s. The entry of professionalism led to other states upstaging Bengal’s footballing superiority. Stuck in the easy familiarity of the previous eras, Kolkata football was too late to react.
By the time, they realised it, it was too late. Goan clubs like Dempo, Salgaocar and Churchill Brothers, were run professionally and it started reflecting in their results. Since the NFL got converted to the I-League in 2007, Dempo has won it thrice while Churchill Brothers have won it twice.
Professionally managed clubs like Bengaluru FC and Pune FC demonstrated what Kolkata football was missing. In an era where promotion and marketing held sway, the big Kolkata clubs seemed like dinosaurs, despite some sponsorship from the now-troubled UB Group. There needed to be a change.
But are things looking up? The first season of the Indian Super League culminated with Atletico De Kolkata winning the championship. Mohun Bagan has won the I-League after 13 years. Is there a chance for Kolkata football to return to the glory days of old?
An uncertain but hopeful future
The answer to that perhaps lies in the way Mohun Bagan approach this triumph.
There are two possible paths the club can take. They can look at this title win, pat themselves on the back, and take this victory as a sign that everything is perfect and nothing needs to change.
Or, they can use this as a stepping stone for greater glory. They can use the money they receive from this victory and invest it completely in their grassroots programme and build the necessary infrastructure for youth football. They can even consider entering into a collaboration with Atletico De Kolkata, a move which might risk alienating the traditional fan base but could provide Mohun Bagan a opportunity to run their club professionally like modern European football clubs.
For Kolkata football to get back its past glory, it needs to enthuse a completely new generation of fans. This is the perfect opportunity. The ISL has rolled into town and has made football looked glamorous. Despite its decline, Kolkata’s football culture is still among the best in India, probably the best among the metros.
With Atletico winning the inaugural ISL and the I-League coming to the city, this marks the best opportunity for Kolkata football clubs to cash in on this heady air of euphoria and tempt a younger generation, a generation that already enjoys watching Manchester United and Chelsea, into the joys of Indian football.
The advantage is that if Mohun Bagan sets the ball rolling, East Bengal will be forced to keep up. If both become professionally managed, well-organised teams, and can channelise the raw talent that Bengal still has, there is every chance of the city’s dominating Indian football in the next few years.
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