Calcutta Football League – Rise of a New Star Amidst Problems Galore

After a thrilling competition last season, this year’s Calcutta Football League turned out to be a pretty one-sided affair although the supporters of East Bengal club are not complaining. However, the league also taught us a few important lessons and will possibly be remembered for the rise of a star player. Kaushik Saha elaborates here at Goalden Times.

Calcutta Football League 2014 was settled on the very last day, with three teams in contention for the crown. This year has been a tame affair onfield, with more drama happening off the field. After Mohun Bagan’s I-League win in 2014–15, this year’s Calcutta Football League started with a lot of promise. There was widespread anticipation that they might finally be able to wrest the crown from East Bengal after five seasons. However, financial troubles forced Mohun Bagan to loan several of their first team players to various ISL teams from the beginning of the season itself.

East Bengal brought in a new coach, Maidan veteran Biswajit Bhattacharya, after a poor finish in I-League. Bhattacharya went about his task quietly, along with his assistants Debjit Ghosh, Sanjay Majhi,and Sammy Omollo. The club also built a good team comprising local players and foreigners. The jackpot they managed was Do Dong Hyun, a South Korean U-23 player, who almost single handedly won East Bengal a few matches in the league.

As a result, East Bengal won the CFL for a record sixth consecutive time, the second time they achieved the same in their and the league’s history (the last one came amidst a glorious run between 1970–75). They also remained unbeaten, the first time this has happened since 2000. However, the path was not exactly rosy as the club began the tournament with a lackluster 1-0 victory, followed by a goalless draw. In two other matches the team was trailing by 0-2, but went on to win eventually. The league saw some spectacular goals— Do Dong scored a few of them, along with Mehtab Hossain(East Bengal), Abinash Ruidas (East Bengal), Azharuddin Mallik (Mohun Bagan), and Christopher Chizoba (Kalighat). Do Dong also scored a fantastic hattrick en route to becoming the top scorer in the league. Mohammedan Sporting beat Police AC 7-0, but their prominence as the third “big team” from Kolkata has long subsided. They barely managed to be fifth in the league this year.

The biggest incidents, however, happened off the field. This includes a major gaffe by Mohun Bagan, where they violated the Governing body of Indian Football Association’s rules by not having a U-23 player on the field. They subsequently lost points because of this. Even in the match against Army XI, which they lost 0-1 (that virtually ended their title challenge), they had a chance to take three points as Army XI had flouted jersey rules.  Army XI eventually ended up becoming the runner up through a series of good performances, leaving a demotivated Mohun Bagan far behind. Mohun Bagan finished a forgettable campaign in the third place (the first time in 13 years) behind Army XI. They had the same number of points as Southern Samity, but were ahead on goal difference.

The biggest incidents, however, happened off the field. This includes a major gaffe by Mohun Bagan, where they violated the Governing body of Indian Football Association’s rules by not having a U-23 player on the field.

A match between Southern Samity and Tollygunge Agragami, which Tollygunge won 4-0 and saved themselves from relegation, was allegedly under the spotlight and was briefly investigated by the IFA—the governing body of football in West Bengal. Another goalless match involving Tollygunge and Aryan came under investigation too. The result ensured that the Subhash Bhowmick-coached Tollygunge stay in the top flight of the league. There were issues of matches being washed out due to rain, and some, including a crucial match between Aryan and Mohun Bagan, were halted due to poor light as well.

However, there were a lot of positives too. On display was the pure passion of East Bengal supporters, as they sensed what they now call the historical “Hexa”.They crowded each match their club played, irrespective of venues. The icing on the cake was, of course, the Kolkata Derby played at Salt Lake Stadium. East Bengal beat Mohun Bagan 4-0, the largest margin ever in a CFL Derby.The match was attended by more than 80,000 fans (East Bengal had also beaten Mohun Bagan 4-0 in a 1936 Kolkata Derby match). There were serpentine queues for tickets, and crowds braved the rains to watch their favourite team play. This was reminiscent of the last decades of the past century, when Satellite TV had not invaded our homes. The TV Channel which beamed almost all the matches live claimed that this match had the highest TRP for a single event on that particular channel, with close to 10 lakh people tuning in. The most heartening thing about the league was to see a Kolkata Derby with two Bengali coaches in charge after almost a decade. The Amal Dutta–PK Banerjee era may just be back.

Kolkata: East Bengal player Dong Hyun Do celebrates after scoring a goal during a CFL League match against Mohun Bagan A.C. in Kolkata, on Sep 6, 2015. East Bengal won. Score 4-0. (Photo: Kuntal Chakrabarty/IANS)
Kolkata: East Bengal player Dong Hyun Do celebrates after scoring a goal during a CFL League match against Mohun Bagan A.C. in Kolkata, on Sep 6, 2015. East Bengal won. Score 4-0. (Photo: Kuntal Chakrabarty/IANS)

The Korean revolution

When East Bengal signed a little-known South Korean U-23 player under their Asian quota, very few seemed to have heard of him. Do Dong Hyun has played in the A-League (he holds the record for being the youngest foreigner to play there) and the J-League. He has also been a part of the Korea U-20 team and even the Indian Super League, but he was a little-known entity in Indian footballing circles. However, after a terrific 1.5 months, in which Dong almost single handedly won East Bengal the league, he is now being seen as a successor to the great Majid Baskar of Iran.He has been feted as, arguably, the best foreigner to have played in India in terms of pure footballing skills and seems to be a refreshing change from the big-bodied Africans who dominated the Kolkata football scene for the past three decades. Though it’s still early days and Dong has not faced much competition so far, the Korean (recently selected for the South Korea U-23 team) has shown glimpses that with a set and stable team, he can do wonders. No wonder East Bengal extended his contract till the 2018–19 seasons.

However, having said that, Dong (who top scored with 12 goals in 10 matches) has still a long way to go to become the next Majid. He must build a better physique and must develop a habit of controlling the game from the midfield. His speed, dribbling, free kicks, and big-match temperament are a matter of no concern for his team. However, it can be a concern for the opponents. In fact, this year Dong single handedly made sure that the poor performance of other foreigners cutting across clubs was not noticed at all. Here is hoping that Dong can have a long and successful stint in Indian football and can enrich the Kolkata football scene, maybe even bringing a few I Leagues to the state.

The solution to the AIFF conundrum

Recently, AIFF announced a possibility of the merger of the ISL and the I-League because of dwindling crowds in the latter. While they did not specify the details, it was said that lack of viewership in I-League was the major reason for such a move. My sincere request to the powers that be would be to have a look at the recent East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan Derby at Salt Lake Stadium, where more than 80,000 people turned up to watch a match that was of little consequence in a minor league. Why doesn’t AIFF arrange a series of East Bengal–Mohun Bagan derbies across cities where the two clubs have a healthy fan following? Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, Guwahati, and Siliguri can be possible venues. This will ensure that (a) the two clubs don’t fall on hard times and have to loan players out, and (b) a revived interest in Indian football by fans of these two clubs. This is because this rivalry is not ordinary.It’s a battle of egos, identities, and cultures—the three things that drive a human being. It’s also the only rivalry that made the top 10 list of major football rivalries from a nation ranked below 100 in the FIFA list.

Image Source – PTI

A New Era

After a never seen before auction of Footballers, will the Premier League Soccer be a new chapter in the history of World Football? Debojyoti Chakraborty takes an in-depth look at the money churning Magnum Opus of Indian Football

There are debates over its inspiration and role model. Hugely popular Indian Premier League (IPL) is a close neighbour which revolutionised cricket few years back. Some are citing it as a direct rip-off from the Major League Soccer (MLS). No matter what, Premier League Soccer (PLS) has arrived in Indian football and how!

The Indian Football Association (IFA), the governing body of football in West Bengal – the state with a huge fan base for football – has struck a 30-year deal with Celebrity Management Group to launch the Premier League Soccer (PLS),due to begin on 24th March, 2012 with the final to be played on 6th May, 2012. The tournament started off with a bang through the auction of franchises on 30th January, this year at a luxury hotel in Kolkata; the city, which has been the spiritual capital of the game in India for decades.  This kind of auction for footballers is unique not only in India, but also across the world. No wonder, it was covered widely in the European and Latin American media. Among others, agents of Robert Pires and Hernan Crespo were very enthusiastic about the whole thing: “They (Pires and Crespo) are very excited about coming to India. They want to be a part of this new experience.”

The base prices were set beforehand. Barasat, a northern suburb of Kolkata, sprung in a surprise as it attracted the highest bid of a little over $ 5 million from the URO Infra Realty – a little known city-based infrastructure development company – after starting at a floor price of Rs. 8 million[[1]]. Kolkata, the pivot of football in India, was set a higher floor price of $ 0.20 million but was sold for $ 2.32 million only to the Kolkata-based conglomerate house Camellia group, which specializes in aviation, education and the health-care sector. Siliguri, a hill station in the northern part of Bengal, also had its floor price at $0.20 million. It was bought by Ajay Consultants, a consulting house offering services mainly to engineering projects, for $3.63 million. One thing was prominent from this pattern – investors poured in funds heavily into infrastructure and the stadium facilities rather than traditional epicentres, which have failed to adapt themselves to the changing demands of the game. Barasat’s whopping price tag can be attributed to the stadium the city owns, easily the best one in this part of the country with international standard architecture, turf, drainage system, gallery and dressing rooms.

The other three franchises – Howrah, Durgapur and Haldia – were all put into the auction with a base price of $0.16 million. While the first two were bought by Syncsys Infotech (a HR consultancy firm) and Tulip Infotech (a high-end technology service provider) for a massive $1.81 million and $1.53 million respectively, the Haldia franchise failed to attract any bidder. The sixth bidder did not have Haldia as one of his preferred three choices and when offered the franchise at the end of the auction, refused to own it. Later on, it was sold to the Kolkata-based Greymind Communications – a production house offering diverse television shows.

The teams have been bought for a decade and then will be offered a retention option. If the owners do not wish to renew the contract, the franchises will again be auctioned. The team owners will have to restrict their spending for the first season within the stiff bracket of $2-2.5 million. This includes the cost of signing up an illustrious foreign coach, one Icon player (defined as an internationally renowned star player), one player of Asian origin, two players from overseas, six Indian players from the under 21 category, six catchment area (local) players and a pool (nine to fourteen) of Indian players. Already a chunk of this sum has been invested to buy the Icon players from the pool of six world class international footballers. The URO Infra Realty emerged triumphant here too, as they signed ex-Argentine striker Hernan Crespo for an unprecedented $850k. Despite being 36 years old, his active playing status for Parma has surely helped him become the most expensive player in the auction. He was closely followed by the only World Cup winning international in the auction – that too, as Captain – the 39-year old Italian Fabio Cannavaro, who retired from competitive football last year. Cannavaro will be donning the Siliguri colours for $840K. French international Robert Pires, who was at the heart of a dominant Arsenal team in the last decade, was snatched up by the Howrah franchise for $810K. Following the pack are Jay Jay Okocha (joined Durgapur team for $550K) and Liverpool’s own Robbie Fowler (to Kolkata for $530K).

PLS Venues

Expert auctioneer Sairaj Madan was in charge of the auction and he was overwhelmed with the response: “A few days back I was conducting an auction for cricket in Bangladesh but this is the first time ever for football.”The franchises seem to be heading in the right direction as they were going all out to get their preferred coaches. There has been a clear pattern – the franchises are going for a pair of Icon player and coach from the same nationality. Thus Durgapur lapped up Okocha as they had roped in the former Nigerian player and coach Samson Siasia at $0.21 million. Kolkata too have the former Manchester City and Sunderland coach Peter Reid, at little less than $0.20 million, to partner another Englishman Robbie Fowler. On the other hand, Barasat have signed Icelander Teitur Thordarson, whereas the Siliguri camp will be headed by possibly the greatest ever Bolivian ex-international Marco Etcheverry. Topping the chart, though, is Portuguese Fernando Couto who went to Howrah for $0.24 million. It can be noted here that Pablo Sorin of Argentina and John Barnes of England – the latter attracted some interest from the Siliguri franchise but in vain – were reserved for Haldia and they got allocated to the franchise once the team found an owner.

Over and above the Icon player, each franchise will have one player of Asian origin and two foreign players who have represented their country at a senior level. They have already been auctioned as below:

Name

Country

Position

Franchise

Age

Byung-Gyu Park

South Korea

Defender

Barasat

29

Bong-kyeom Kim

South Korea

Defender

Durgapur

Asian Players

27

Yoon-Chul Byun

South Korea

Forward

Howrah

25

Park Ji-Sung

South Korea

Midfielder

Kolkata

23

Hwang Gyu-Hwan

South Korea

Midfielder

Siliguri

25

Joaquin Botero

Bolivia

Forward

Barasat

34

Christian Lara

Ecuador

Attacking Midfielder

Barasat

31

Alonso Solis

Costa Rica

Attacking Midfielder / Forward

Durgapur

33

Jose Carlos Castillo

Guatemala

Midfielder

Durgapur

Foreign Players

19

Gabriel Ríos

Bolivia

Forward

Howrah

24

Diego Madrigal

Costa Rica

Forward

Howrah

22

Robert Egbeto

Nigeria

Defender

Kolkata

22

Daniel Varela

Costa Rica

Midfielder

Kolkata

21

Limberg Gutierrez

Bolivia

Attacking Midfielder

Siliguri

34

Santino Quaranta

USA

Forward

Siliguri

27

It is evident that only South Korean, Latin American and players from the CONCACAF constitute this segment of players. One can really hope that after gaining more popularity and catching quite a few eyeballs, players across the globe will be taking part in this unique extravaganza. Some teams have picked up one foreign player to lead in attack, midfield and defence, whereas teams like Howrah are a bit lopsided having bolstered only their attacking front so far. It seems they have to rely on the Indian players to give the team a proper balance. Barasat, on the other hand, have gone for experience but it remains to be seen how their ageing stars can cope with the demands of regular 90 minutes of competitive football. Also, no goalkeepers were up for grabs and teams might regret this as the tournament reaches its finale.

Rest of the squad will be made up of Indians who would be auctioned later on. The league will be handicapped to a certain extent as top Indian players, who are a part of the ongoing Indian National League (I-League), are not allowed to participate in this event. That leaves us only with either relatively young greenhorns or some below average locals who could not even break into the top club sides or someone who is way beyond his peak. They were slated for auction on 12th February 2012 with a base price of $4K to $6K. Also top drawer players from European leagues cannot be approached as PLS is scheduled to kick start in late February – right in the middle of congested European fixtures. If PLS has to survive for coming years, the organizers have to address this issue and maybe shift the tournament to a suitable two-month window.

The auction itself has been a huge success. The franchises consulted a number of ex-footballers and event management groups to decide their strategy. Ex-Indian footballer and their most famous star till date, Baichung Bhutia has been involved with the big spending URO group and has been rumoured to even turn out for them. It is not limited to football only. But this won’t be possible this time round as Bhutia has already played for United Sikkim in the second division of the I-League. The iconic and greatest ever sportsperson from Kolkata, India’s ex-cricket captain Sourav Ganguly has been roped in as the brand ambassador for the Kolkata franchise.

But the effort is not without its share of criticism. Will the fans turn up to see ageing, retired Iicon players? Will the little known foreign players be able to catch the eye? Will there be a loyal fan base without any local marquee players? Will the league be able to generate enough eyeballs beyond West Bengal, where the event is due to be hosted? Will it stand any chance against the hugely popular Indian Premier League – a cricket extravaganza, India’s favourite sporting event – which will be hosted simultaneously? Will the event be managed properly or will it fizzle out like the similarly hyped Premier Hockey League (PHL)?

Well, these questions will be answered shortly. But PLS is drawing controversies even before its launch. The governing body of football in India, All India Football Federation (AIFF), is at swords with the tournament and had recently asked FIFA to keep the foreign player transfers on hold. The argument put forward was that the franchises were not eligible to recruit any foreign player from the Transfer Matching System (TMS) – the mechanism used for PLS – as the teams are not registered. But IFA found a solution to this and have galvanized six local lower division clubs with the franchises and got them registered in due time. Hopefully there would not be any roadblock before the start of the campaign.

The country, in particular Kolkata, has given an astounding ovation to the greats of the game like Diego  Maradona, Oliver Kahn on his farewell match, Lionel Messi with his Argentina team, Blackburn Rovers and Bayern Munich in the last couple of years; but this has to take the cake – PLS is said to be the future of Indian Football. The first cut has really been awe-inspiring. The first day advance booking is very encouraging. The international media rights have been booked by the Singapore based broadcaster MP & Silva, while broadcasters in South Asia are fighting it out. However, this conflict may contribute to the range of $6 million for Season One of PLS alone. Celebrity Management Group (CMG), IFA and the franchises are planning to start their promotional campaign soon. The total prize money for this tournament – featuring 35 matches in all with 5 of them being knockout ones – will be $0.3 million with the champion team getting $0.1 million. All it needs is a good show and PLS would surely score it big. And in the coming years, we could well see the event spreading all over the nation and becoming a landmark for football in India. Are you ready for the revolution?

Spending pattern for the Franchises (in million USD)[2]



[1] Rs = Indian Currency (INR); 1 USD = INR 49.61 as on Auction day – 30th January 2012

[2] Figures for Haldia franchise are not available