Calcutta Football League 2014: A Review
It is not often that a local Indian league becomes the main topic of discussion in football circles, especially with several high profile global leagues, a newly launched football super league in India, Euro Cup qualifiers, and international friendlies in full swing. Kaushik Saha takes a look at one of the most exciting finishes to the Calcutta Football League in recent times, which revived interest in the moribund tournament.
In the past decade and a half (or more), the Calcutta Football League (which has undergone several name and format changes, mainly due to organisational reasons) has become the epitome of inefficiency, poor management, and a passing-on-the-buck syndrome on part of the organizers—the Indian Football Association (IFA). There have been occasions in the not-too-distant-past when teams forced changes in schedules at will, matches were played in random between India’s top flight national football league matches, and tournaments started in July one year and finished in May the next year. Long, erratic, and irrational schedules meant that the smaller teams were never in a state to compete with the Big Two—East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. This led to a loss of interest among fans to such an extent that even the most sought-after Derby matches between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan were played in half-empty stadiums. There was little or no sponsorship, little media coverage outside West Bengal, and very little attention from stakeholders like advertisers and TV channels.
However, all this changed this year. The much-maligned IFA Secretary, Utpal Ganguly, and his team made several sweeping changes to the schedule and format. First, the double-leg system was done away with. Just 11 teams were chosen to play in order to reduce the number of meaningless matches. The League was scheduled to finish in a span of one-and-a-half months, before the start of any other major national level tournament elsewhere. A TV partner was roped in, and all matches started at the same time of the day (unlike earlier gimmicks, where Derby matches started later in the evening) so that the maximum number of matches were telecast live (actually 39 out of 55 matches were telecast live, including matches between lowly ranked teams).
All the above had a positive impact. The single-leg format and short span of time for completion of the tournament meant that the smaller teams had to spend less money on training and the teams could gel together. This had the desired effect, as some of them—Army XI, Southern Samity, and, of course, Tollygunge Agragami, gave the big two a run for their money. Mohammedan Sporting also managed to beat both, something no team had done in the past two decades. Another very interesting development came about, which is expected to have a very positive effect on Bengal football in the long run.
The Indian Super League, scheduled to begin on October 12, enforced the rule that players selected to play for the various teams cannot play any competitive football from September 1 onwards. This led to the major teams releasing most players from their first team by August 31, and, as a result, forced to play reserves or young players. This had a positive effect on both the players, who got a rare chance to prove themselves, and the teams who found out that in case of injury to their main stars, they actually have players to fall back upon. The emergence of such new players, most of whom are home grown and trained in local academies, augurs well for Bengal football as these youngsters look to revive lost glory in Santosh trophy.
This season was also the battle of the coaches and technical directors—the stars, the former players, the maidan veterans, the wily foxes and experienced hands. Armando Colaco, Subrata Bhattacharya, Subhash Bhowmick, Chima Okorie, Raghu Nandi, and his son Rajdeep all contributed in their own ways in making this League a thrilling one. Then, there were the marquee players—Pierre Boya of Mohun Bagan who has played in the UEFA Champions’ League and Leo Bertos of East Bengal who had represented New Zealand in the 2010 FIFA World Cup—who added the necessary color and spice,and attracted a number of sponsors as well as eyeballs. The best part of the entire League was that it managed to get the crowds back to the stadiums—Yuva Bharati Krirangan (Salt Lake) and Barasat Stadium.
An exciting finish, a string of upsets, and a major comeback
The League began with a bang, when, on the opening day (August 10), Mohammedan Sporting defeated the four-time defending champions East Bengal 1-0 via a wonderful strike by youngster Imran Khan and some superb goalkeeping by Arnab Dassharma (reminding viewers and reporters of the Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa in the Mexico vs. Brazil match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup). Some dogged defending by Lal Daniela and Sunil Kumar ensured their best start to a season in five years. Their maverick coach, Fuja Tope, then plotted the defeat of Mohun Bagan a few days later. However, towards the end of season, a series of setbacks—notably, defeats to Army XI and Tollygunge Agragami (an eight-goal thriller where Tollygunge won 5-3) laid their hopes to rest.
East Bengal, after an ordinary beginning, managed to beat BNR, and then had a game called off against Chima Okorie-coached Police AC due to bad light. Their season plunged into further misery after they managed a 1-1 draw vs. the lowly ranked Kalighat, despite playing World Cupper Leo Bartois. However, the arrival of Nigerian Striker Dudu Omagbemi and his partnership with Ranty Martins, one of Indian football’s most prolific strikers of this century, changed their destiny. The duo teamed up well and scored at will as they led East Bengal to a Derby win vs. Mohun Bagan, which was followed by winning the title. Dudu (with two hattricks) also emerged the top goal scorer along with Koko Sakibo of Tollygunge Agragami (though, it must be noted, Dudu played four matches less). This title is the fifth one in a row for East Bengal (they are the only team to have won the League in five consecutive years, and that too on two separate occasions. In 1970-75, they won six times at a stretch, a feat which included their performance in the year 1972 when they won the League without conceding a goal) and represents a victory of the idea of the “youth first” strategy of coach Armando Colaco who had declared long back that he views the league as a launchpad for the I-League. It was a brilliant team effort, where seniors like Mehtab Hossain and Joaquim Abranches led the way for youngsters like Abinash Ruidas to take over.
Arch rivals Mohun Bagan played good football for five out of six weeks, and won eight out of ten matches. However, one bad week, where they lost to both Mohammedan Sporting and East Bengal in a span of eight days, put their hopes to rest. However, Mohun Bagan can take heart from the fact that they may finally have assimilated a team which can win a trophy for them after a few barren years. Kingshuk Debnath and Shouvik Ghosh have looked solid in defense, Balwant Singh has emerged as a prolific scorer, and, after a few initial hiccups, Pierre Boya is finally starting to show his class. Lalkamal Bhowmick has been a calming influence in the midfield and Shilton Paul has led the team well from under the bar. The Mohun Bagan Technical Director this season is maidan veteran Subhash Bhowmick, while the team’s coach is Shankarlal Chakrabarty, a wily customer of many a big match himself. The man often (dis)credited with having ended Shankarlal’s football career, and one of the best foreigners to have ever played in the Kolkata maidans, Chima Okorie, coached the Police AC team this year (after being associated for a short while with Mumbai FC and Mohun Bagan). The team started off well, but a 1–6 defeat to Kalighat MSC made Chima resign in tears.
Raghu Nandi, a former East Bengal player and a veteran coach who is credited with building teams from scratch, coached Southern Samity this season—a team that played good football, especially against East Bengal. Raghu Nandi joined Southern Samity after being unceremoniously forced to resign from Tollygunge Agragami, soon after he led them to credible results in the 2013-14 season (Subrata Bhattacharya was made his boss at a short notice). His son Rajdeep made his coaching debut this season for Aryan. Another team that deserves a special mention is SAI (East Zone), who, playing without a foreigner, played well against Mohun Bagan and nearly held them to a draw. They were also impressive in a 4-1 defeat of BNR, which was led by youngster Azharuddin Mallick.
Finally, a word and two about the two teams responsible for taking the league to the wire—Army XI and Tollygunge Agragami. Army XI is a team composed of 20-25-year olds who are engaged in service with the Indian Army. The team does not employ foreigners. However, they put up an impressive show, especially Anthony Chetri in defense and Arjun Tudu in attack. They led the League table till the seventh round, having chalked up impressive victories over teams like Mohammedan, SAI, Southern Samity, and Aryan. They fought East Bengal on an even keel before losing 1-4, courtesy a Dudu Hattrick, and ran Mohun Bagan close, before a Balwant hattrick sunk them. They finished fourth eventually, their best-ever finish in nearly three decades.
Tollygunge Agragami was coached by the wily Subrata Bhattacharya, considered widely to be one of the best coaches in India. They began with a 0-1 loss to Mohun Bagan, but chalked up impressive wins to lead the League on goal difference going into the last set of matches. They also ended up conceding the least number of goals, courtesy a solid defense led by youngsters like Shanku Guha, Goutam Thakur, and Sheikh Habibur. In fact, six of the seven goals they conceded were scored by East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and Mohammedan Sporting. Their 5-3 win against Mohammedan was considered the match of the tournament. They also had a strong attack led by joint top scorer Koko and Daniel Bidemi, and a defense marshalled by Bello Razzaq.
The League went down to the wire, and, on the last day, the scenario was such that any of the following three—Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, and Tollygunge Agragami—could have won the League. If they had managed to beat East Bengal, Tollygunge would have been the first team outside East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and Mohammedan Sporting to win the CFL since Eastern Railway FC, captained by P. K. Banerjee, did it in 1958. A draw in the last match would have seen Mohun Bagan win the League, the first incidence when one of the Big Three would have won the league despite having lost to the other two. However, East Bengal held their nerves, and beat Tollygunge Agragami 2-1. The winner was scored by Ranty Martins, but it was Prohlad Roy, the scorer of the first goal, who stole the limelight.
Prohlad Roy is one among a bunch of youngsters who benefitted from the Indian Soccer League. This is not because they have been directly selected to play for the League, but because they were mostly taken off the reserve team and selected to play for the first team after the regulars were selected to play for ISL and their contract forbade them to take part in the CFL post September 1. Roy, along with players like Abinash Ruidas, Abhishek Das (all East Bengal), Sukhen Dey and Shouvik Ghosh (Mohun Bagan) represent a new breed of local players who can go far if given the right opportunities. Given the fact that Santosh trophy is now an under-23 tournament, Bengal, led by these youngsters has a good team now which can bring back the glory days. Credit must be given to Colaco and Bhowmick for giving these youngsters the chance to develop. If one needs any confirmation as to the talent of these youngsters, check out this world class goal by Prohlad Roy.
A special mention must be made of the newly promoted club, Pathachakra. After United Sports was disbanded following financial reasons, their coach Nabab Bhattacharya joined a second-division team called Pathachakra. With limited resources and local players (most of whom are under the age of 21), Nabab led the team to second-division glory.
The good, the bad and the ugly
IFA has extensively used lady referees and lineswomen this time. This is to bring down crowd, official, and player violence towards match officials after results or decisions. A star referee this time has been Kanika Barman, a diminutive Government servant who did an excellent job and kept her cool, even in volatile situations. After winning the League, East bengal coach Armando Colaco dedicated the League to the Kashmir flood victims and appealed for donations from club supporters.
Despite all the efforts by IFA, violence by officials and crowds has not really gone away. Mohammedan officials and supporters physically assaulted referee Pranjal Banerjee after the former’s 3-5 defeat to Tollygunge Agragami, as they felt they have been denied a penalty. East Bengal supporters and Southern Samity coach Raghu Nandi were also involved in a similar incident after East Bengal’s narrow 1-0 victory. Subrata Bhattacharya continued allegations that officials had favored East Bengal in the title-deciding match.
Endurance James of BNR made ugly sexist gestures at referee Kanika Barman in their 1-2 defeat at the hands of Mohun Bagan. There were widespread calls from former players, the State Commission For Women, and other football officials to ban James or even deport him, but nothing happened. BNR simply looked away as their best player was involved. Even the lady downplayed the incident, possibly under pressure from the Referee Association and political parties.
Team of the tournament
All said and done, this was an exciting tournament, which ended on a high note for a lot of stakeholders—the officials who were paid well due to better sponsorship, the IFA, the TV channel which telecast the matches live, the players, and, of course, the crowds The team of the tournament is as follows (strictly based on performances in the CFL and keeping in mind that only two foreigners are allowed per match and keeping a 4-3-3 formation):
Goalkeeper: Raju Ganguly (Tollygunge Agragami)
Defense: Abhishek Das and Abhra Mondal (East Bengal), Anthony Chetri (Army XI), Imran Khan (Mohammedan Sporting)
Midfield: Lalkamal Bhoumick (Mohun Bagan), Prohlad Roy and Abinash Ruidas (East Bengal)
Forward: Balwant Singh (Mohun Bagan), Dudu Omagbemi (East Bengal), Koko Sakibo (Tollygunge Agragami) Coach: Armando Colaco (East Bengal)