On Thursday, September 15, East Bengal club's insipid 1-0 win against the Mohammedan Sporting at the Kalyani Stadium in West Bengal brought the curtain down on the championship fight for the Calcutta Football League, with the red and golds winning the trophy for the seventh consecutive time.
Calcutta Football League what? Does anyone care?
Ever since live TV coverage of European football began in India, followed by the advent of the I-League and the ISL, the country’s oldest football league has seen the interest in it dwindling consistently. Still, the eight weeks over which the 2016 edition ran – a far cry from the long-drawn-out affair in its prime, up until the 1990s – were not short of drama, revealing all that is right and all that is wrong about Kolkata football.
The football finally returned to the Maidan, the erstwhile hub of the beautiful game. The three major clubs, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting, all have their own grounds in this giant green patch that acts as the lungs of the city. After almost two decades, Mohun Bagan hosted a match at their own ground under floodlights, and the faithful thronged in large numbers to see their team in action.
Earlier, the media couldn't stop talking about the seven-thousand attendance in Mumbai at the India-Puerto Rico match. The crowds at the big clubs' games in Kolkata regularly topped 10,000 even after realistic chances of winning the title were gone. Although there were fewer spectators in Kalyani, a small town 60 km from the heart from Kolkata, a sizeable number of East Bengal fans made the trip regularly.
This season will be remembered as the one when East Bengal bettered their own record of six consecutive League titles, from 1970 to 1975. Even though their failure to win the I-League since 2004 has been a major talking point, everybody associated with the club took great pride in the new record.
Before the start of the season, Mohun Bagan head coach Sanjoy Sen chose to take a sabbatical and former East Bengal player Shankarlal Chakraborty took over the reins during the Calcutta Football League. The idea was to give junior players more exposure, especially given the fact that a number of the club’s first team regulars were unavailable because of the ISL clubs’ pre-season preparations.
But ultimately, all those plans were sacrificed in the half-hearted search for glory. Only three young players – Azharuddin Mullick, Tonmoy Ghosh and Sarthak Golui – earned regular starts. It was veterans like Raju Gaikwad, Prabir Das, Saran Singh and Arnab Das Sharma who formed the core of a side that was continuously being termed a "young team" by the officials, even though it was mostly a group of players with significant experience in top-flight football.
The League, which used to mark the arrivals of new stars till about a decade ago, also failed in terms of unearthing fresh young talent. Even the minnows depended mostly on rejected veterans now available at low salaries, and failed to upset the top teams.
Sadly, the season acquired a sour note because of the myopic decision-making of the Mohun Bagan officials. The quartet that runs the club these days first threatened to pull out of the League after supporters invaded the field in the dying minutes of their fixture against Tollygunge Agragami, following a disallowed goal. Hours later, the club asked for a replay of the fixture, which was later approved by the Indian Football Federation (IFA), the governing body of the game in the state.
As a matter of fact, IFA works on a shoestring budget and depends heavily on the two giants, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, to keep them both solvent and relevant. However, the Mohun Bagan hierarchy has used this fact to bully the parent body and has made it almost a habit to threaten them with pulling out of the League.
Their biggest blunder this time was the ill-thought decision of not fielding a team for the derby against East Bengal, which remains the most sought after fixture for both fans and footballers. So, on the match-day, when the East Bengal players lined up at the Kalyani Stadium, their opponents watched the proceedings on TV. After waiting half an hour, the match commissioner officially called off the game and awarded East Bengal the points.
In pulling out of the derby, the Mohun Bagan management, led by Srinjoy Bose, appeared to expose their lack of faith in the second string side that had actually impressed during the League. It’s a shame that the club, which is over 125 years old and has the richest of legacies, has fallen victim to such mindless leadership.
However, the silver lining is that most of the supporters chose to vent their frustration openly against the decision. This may change the thinking at the club.
It's a pity that East Bengal's rivals made it so east for them. Trevor Morgan’s squad, which was considerably stronger than the other sides, often failed to play attractive football but took home the points. In a local league whose golden days are long one, all that matters now are bragging rights. The quality of the football hardly matters anymore.
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