Red and Gold’s Moments of International Glory

East Bengal Club have consistently performed well against strong teams from outside India over the years, and won a major trophy at the AFF Championship in 2003. Recently, they became the first Indian team to qualify for pre-quarter-finals of AFC Cup, unbeaten from their group. Kaushik Saha analyses their glorious performances over the years and previews their upcoming match

East Bengal have a glorious history when it comes to playing against opposition from outside India. This includes countries ranked far above India by FIFA – for instance, PAS Tehran Club of Iran in the IFA Shield final in 1970 and Pyongyang City Club of North Korea in the IFA Shield final of 1973. In 1993, as a wide-eyed 11-year-old, I had seen them demolish Al Jahra 6-2 in an Asian Cup Winners’ Cup match with Carlton Chapman scoring a hat-trick. And then, inspired by Baichung Bhutia and Sammy Omollo, they beat Verdy Kawasaki of Japan in 1997, one of the strongest clubs in Asia at that time. But their peak came in the ASEAN Club Championship in 2003 when they emerged winners by beating BEC Tero Sasana FC of Thailand, becoming the first Indian club to win a tournament at that level.

What makes East Bengal click against foreign opponents?

A cursory look at East Bengal’s domestic record in their 90+ years of existence will show they are as successful as their archrivals Mohun Bagan. Over the years, these two have weathered a lot of oppositions – good and great teams from Kolkata, Kerala, Punjab, Goa and the Northeast have played spectacular football in patches – but none have been able to match the longevity of these two clubs from Kolkata. A possible reason is that over the years, the legend of these two clubs has drawn innumerable greats of Indian football and from other countries to play for the duo.

But when it comes to results against international opposition, East Bengal are miles ahead of Mohun Bagan, or for that matter, any other Indian club. The main reason, as I see it, is that East Bengal have that certain legacy. Ever since the famous five Pandavas of East Bengal beat the Chinese XI in 1948, successive East Bengal teams have believed they can compete on an equal footing against any international opposition – irrespective of their status. The other teams are yet to get that kind of a breakthrough – result wise or mentally, against international clubs. East Bengal have had patches where such victories were hard to come, but those patches haven’t lasted too long. A second reason is that East Bengal, unlike a few other clubs, have taken international tournaments or outings as importantly as domestic engagements, even when they have not been part of tournaments played in India.

Case in point – Churchill Brothers this season sacrificed their Asian campaign to win the I-League, not a bad move really, but it showed where their priorities lie. East Bengal, on the other hand, took the AFC Cup as seriously as they take any match they play in India. As a result, they finished as unbeaten group toppers, becoming the first Indian team to achieve this feat.

East Bengal’s AFC campaign 2013

East Bengal have had a dream run in the AFC Cup this year. They emerged unbeaten in their group, and emerged group toppers with 14 points (Selangor of Vietnam finished second with eight points), which means they will play their pre-quarter-final match at home. Now, a detailed list of results is available on the internet, and I shan’t repeat them, but talk of East Bengal’s strategy instead.

What went in East Bengal’s favour? East Bengal were in contention to win the I-League after nearly a decade, but once a couple of results went against them, they decided to give the AFC Cup their best shot and ensured their players stay fresh in the crucial matches by rotating players in tournaments like the IFA Shield.

East Bengal players celebrate a goal in AFC Cup 2013

A combination of youth (Lalrindika Ralte, Manandeep Singh and Sanju Pradhan) and experience (Mehtab Hossain, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Harmanjot Khabra), good foreign signings (like Andrew Barisić, who didn’t let the hangover of Tolgay Özbey remain) and established foreign players (Uga Okpara, Penn Orji and Chidi Edeh) ensured a balanced team, so much so that the absence of a veteran like Alvito D’Cunha and the off form of Robin Singh (mainstay in the last couple of seasons along with Tolgay who left for Mohun Bagan) were hardly felt. Chidi and Barisić scored goals at crucial times while Naoba Singh and Okpara defended well. The surprise packages were Arnab Mondal in defence and Dika as a midfielder – two young players who hold great promise for Indian football. Trevor James Morgan, the experienced British coach, used 4-3-3 and 4-2-1-3 combinations with great effect – he crowded the defence and didnot let the attack falter either.

What worked in East Bengal’s favour was that their home matches were being played in the extreme heat and humidity of a Kolkata summer. Their rivals from Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore also have hot summers, but the Kolkata summer is of a different league altogether – clubbed with energy-sapping humidity. As a result, East Bengal players, used to this weather, won all their home matches convincingly and collected valuable points. But their most significant victory was the away 4-2 victory vs. Tampines Rovers in Singapore, a match which instilled confidence that they could emerge as group toppers.

Road ahead for East Bengal in AFC Cup 2013

East Bengal next plays Yangon United FC, Myanmar National League champions for the last two years. They finished second in their group behind New Radiant of Maldives on goal difference. They are definitely not a pushover team, having won five of their matches and losing just one (the away match to New Radiant), and having scored 18 goals, of which 9 have been scored by Adama Koné, their striker from Ivory Coast. Besides Koné, they have a good defender in the form of Michael Cvetkovski of Australia and an inspirational captain-midfielder in the form of Khin Maung Lwin who is the Malaysian national captain as well, with 49 international caps. But then, East Bengal will have the home advantage, with Yangon having to battle the weather and a boisterous crowd of 50,000 East Bengal supporters at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan. The rules of AFC Cup ensure there’s no away match for East Bengal, and they would like to cash in. East Bengal at this stage, have no major injury related concerns and will play the only I-League match vs. Shillong Lajong FC on May 12, a match which does not hold much significance to East Bengal, and they can afford to rest a couple of their first team players.

The Yangon United team

Two interesting facts about Yangon – they started off as Air Bagan; now that sounds similar to archrivals Mohun Bagan, and they are affiliated with BEC Tero Sasana (player training programmes etc.), who have been mentioned earlier in the article. If East Bengal go through to the quarter-final, they will have to play either Semen Padang of Indonesia or SHB Ðà Nẵng of Vietnam. Those matches will be played in September, and on a home and away basis. But that’s quite far away. For now, let’s hope for an East Bengal victory today and also wish they bid their talismanic coach Morgan a fitting farewell.

Has the IFA Shield Lost its Charm?

One of the oldest tournaments in the world no longer draws the crowds it used to. Kaushik Saha analyzes the possible causes of its decline and ponders over ways to revive the lost glory

The IFA Shield was a premier football tournament, not just in India but in South Eastern Asia, for a significant part of the last century. Started in 1893, it is the fourth oldest club tournament in the world, and the second oldest in India after the Durand Cup. Over the years, a number of strong teams from different countries have played in the tournament, and some of the victories by Indian clubs over these teams have attained folklore status.

Mohun Bagan’s victory won that historic IFA Shield in 1911, East Bengal had beat Pyongyang Sports Club of South Korea in 1973 and PAS Tehran of Iran in 1970. A reserve team of Bayern Munich has been champions as recently as 2005, while the 1993 final between Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan) and Pavlodar (Kazakhstan) is widely considered to be the best match played between two clubs on Indian soil. The IFA Shield, along with the Durand Cup (winners do not qualify for Asian Football Confederation tournaments) and the Rovers Cup (now defunct) formed the Triple Crown of Indian football at one point of time.

The lack of interest by stakeholders

I watched the IFA Shield final between East Bengal and Prayag United FC last year in the Salt Lake Stadium, and this time on television. Besides the two same set of finalists, there was something else that was common to both the finals – a stadium that was not packed to its full capacity.

An empty Salt Lake Stadium during IFA Shield 2012 final
Last year I had reasoned with myself – the start was at 3.00 p.m., it was a warm spring afternoon on a weekday, hence crowds are sparse. However, this time the situation was different – the match was played under lights, it was a 5.30 p.m. start, and most would have had their office timings over by then.
Then what was the reason? Was it because an East Bengal-Prayag United match did not hold as much interest as an East Bengal-Mohun Bagan derby match? But then, even the derby, surprisingly, saw a lower turnout than the I-league matches. The reason was not difficult to guess – the IFA Shield is not given as much importance as before. But this is not just about the spectators. The tournament is almost neglected by the organizers themselves – the Indian Football Association. And the teams, at least the major clubs based out of Kolkata do not seem to take it seriously either.
Take this year’s tournament for example – it was hastily scheduled, there was confusion regarding teams (Muktijoddha Sangsad KC from Bangladesh were invited who had to back out in the last minute owing to visa issues) and even deciding the groups. East Bengal, the defending champions, went ahead to play an AFC Cup match in the middle of the tournament. Mohun Bagan threatened to pull out twice after lack of clarity on the schedule.

What are the causes of IFA Shield’s decline?

The trend of last five-six years has been very disturbing. There is no separate window for any tournament in India by All India Football Federation (AIFF) or the IFA, and a lot of matches are played according to convenience of the two teams involved rather than a fixed schedule. However, there is still a calendar that is prepared by local bodies like the IFA and sent over to AIFF, which then schedules the I-League matches and Federation Cup accordingly.
In the last few years, the tournament has been set in the extreme heat and humidity of March – this dissuades a number of teams from participating in the tournament to begin with. The quality of teams, especially those from outside India has gone down for this reason. Poor scheduling continues with important matches being scheduled on weekdays, thus keeping the office-going and college-going fans away.
The national league, I-league has emerged as the premier football tournament in India (that’s not a bad sign for Indian football, but not good for other domestic tournaments which has ceded space to it). As a result, most of the top Indian teams (from Goa, especially) want to preserve their players from exhaustion, and hence keep away from the IFA Shield. The handful of sponsors and TV channels (even those from Kolkata) who want to invest money in Indian football prefer to do it in the higher profile I-league.
The Yuva Bharati Krirangan, or Salt Lake stadium is the pride of the Indian football fraternity – and has been hosting the IFA Shield for years. However, in recent times, it has been used for purpose other than football – opening ceremonies of other sports tournaments, cultural events etc. Lack of facilities and negligence of the stadium has led to some spectators keeping away. Also, a few matches are held at stadiums in places like Howrah, where medical facilities are at a premium – in this year’s edition, the goalkeeper from Costa Rican club Saprissa, Douglas Espinoza lost consciousness on the field and almost lost his life – and chances of a mishap are high.

What can be done to bring back the glory of IFA Shield?

First and foremost, have a separate window for the tournament, neither in the rainy season nor the summer. Preferably, between October and February. December will be a good time to start. Also, the tournament should be held in a tight schedule – 10 days at the most, with derby matches and knockout stages being held on the weekends. With a pleasant weather, most teams won’t mind playing matches with smaller gaps in between.
Winter break in most leagues around this time of the year will also ensure participation by good teams, both from India and other nations. This will ensure higher TV viewership as well and bring in the sponsors. Given the holiday season, even non-resident Kolkattans visiting home can watch the matches along with the derby. Tickets for select portions of the stadium can be thus priced higher, earning more revenue.
Another important task would be to develop infrastructure in stadiums other than the Salt Lake Stadium. This implies keeping emergency medical facilities and amenities for the spectators too. It will come at a cost, but if the state government is keen to showcase the football culture of the state, they should take the initiative.
The IFA Shield is in a way symptomatic of the mess Indian football has been, and reviving it will trigger positive signals. As fans, we shall keep our fingers crossed.

First Whistle – March 2012

The onset of Spring brings with it rebirth, renewal and regrowth. And so is Goalden Times reinventing itself while keeping pace with the winds of change. Well, the Armani’s, Dior’s and Saint Laurent’s may not be around to drape us with a new look, but we can redesign our outfit, alright. Hope you like our brand new attire! And don’t mind us being fashionably late…

In other news, the Ides of March brought evil tidings for clubs from England. Widely acknowledged as the most competitive league in Europe, the Premier League suffered one reverse after another, the worst being Athletic Bilbao sweeping aside the English champions Manchester United through some exceptional football. It would have lost its entire stock of clubs in Europe, but for a miraculous comeback by Chelsea in a pulsating thriller with Napoli. Having fired their manager, the old hands of Chelsea turned the clock back to produce vital performances. Elsewhere, it was a celebration of Michel Platini’s efforts to empower the clubs from outside the traditional powerhouse leagues. Apoel FC from Nicosia is a poster boy for this, reaching the Champions League quarter-finals where they will be up against the might of Real Madrid. Traditional giants AC Milan and Bayern Munich also made their presence felt. Mario Gomez was no match for Lionel Messi who slammed, slalomed, crashed, walloped and blazed five past Bayer Leverkusen. Milan against Barcelona would be the tie of the quarter-finals but having faced each other in group stages, many would have argued that UEFA needs to relook at the system.

Domestically, most leagues threw up two-horse races. Milan leads Juventus in Serie A, the Manchester clubs are separated by one point in Premier League, Borussia Dortmund have advantage over Bayern Munich in Bundesliga, Paris Saint-Germain have a slender lead over Montpellier and Porto lead over Benfica in Primeira Liga. In La Liga though, Real Madrid’s eight point lead over Barcelona seems to have already ensured another league win for Jose Mourinho.

Juventus remained the only club among the big leagues to remain unbeaten across all competitions, though having drawn more than they have won, their title hopes are dependent on Milan suffering reverses. One such ‘reverse’ for Milan was when this happened in the title clash with Juventus, leading to increasing calls for goal-line technology.

Liverpool managed to grab their first trophy in six years, winning the League Cup beating Cardiff City in tiebreaker, thus ensuring their participation in European competitions after a year’s absence.

On the other side of the globe, in India, the fourth oldest cup competition in the world (started in 1893), the IFA Shield was won by local giants East Bengal. The win is memorable for it came in the centenary year of the first ever win of the Shield by an Indian team – ironically, East Bengal’s archrivals, Mohun Bagan.

With the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, and various domestic tussles in Europe, the next four weeks look promising. We shall be around to bring you all the riveting updates.

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1911 – A Seminal Win

Many of the readers here who are not from India, or those in India, may not be aware of an incident that happened on 29th July 1911, just over a 100 years ago. A group of barefoot Indians beat their then political masters, the British, in a game of football. This does not sound earth-shattering, or something that changed the course of history of Indian sports, let alone India in general.

For those of you, however, who have heard about the exploits of Dynamo Kiev against the German jailors during World War II which inspired the movie “Escape to Victory” or seen Bhuvan of “Lagaan” (a Bollywood movie that was nominated and just lost out for Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2002) inspire a rag-tag team to victory against the British, I can only tell this achievement was no less. To my British friends and readers, I must apologize for some rhetoric that can accompany this article, but such was the truth of those times.

The Mohun Bagan players with the IFA Shield 1911

The British had introduced, among other sports, football in India, mostly as a recreational activity. As part of this activity, they had started some tournaments where the teams participated, not because the remuneration was high, but because those were a way to stay competitive and fit. One of those tournaments was the IFA shield, India’s premier domestic tournament and fourth oldest club cup tournaments in the world.

Now, among the sports the British had introduced (cricket, hockey, badminton, tennis etc), Indians had developed the skill to play football faster than the others. The local Bengali businessmen and landlords patronized clubs to take up football. One such club was Mohun Bagan, who had inculcated a system of developing local talent to play football. Most of the Indian clubs played barefoot, which may sound absurd now, but mostly religious connotations and comfort levels ensured they did not wear shoes.

In the lead up to the 1911 IFA Shield, Mohun Bagan had won several smaller tournaments beating their Indian rivals. However, it was the first time they had reached the final, beating a clutch of British teams like St. Xavier’s. In the final, they came up against the team from East Yorkshire regiment. The match had attained legendary proportions keeping in mind the anti-establishment sentiments brewing in the minds of many revolutionary Indians.

East Bengal Club, which is said to represent the sentiments of people from East Bengal (now Bangladesh), was formed much later. In that sense, Mohun Bagan represented the Bengalis, who in 1911 were very much the embodiment of the common Indian man who was subjugated under the rule of the empire. No wonder the match was well publicized even in those days and people came from the far east of undivided Bengal to watch it.

What followed was something memorable as Mohun Bagan came back from a goal down to win the match 2-1. It was a momentous occasion. As the captain of the side Shibdas Bhaduri said to his main striker, Abhilash Ghosh – “football perhaps is the only place where we can kick and injure without fear of retribution”. That summed it up – ‘Sports’, is the greatest leveller of all.

However, this article is not just about the build-up to the game, or the results – they are well documented in several movies, documentaries and write-ups. This is about the after-effects of the match. And the after-effects were not just in sports, but spread to other fields as well. It is said that a number of young boys who watched that match became footballers themselves, most prominent among them being the great Gostha Pal, who was given the sobriquet, “The Chinese Wall” for his great defending, by the British.

As the captain of the side Shibdas Bhaduri said to his main striker, Abhilash Ghosh – “football perhaps is the only place where we can kick and injure without fear of retribution”. That summed it up – ‘Sports’, is the greatest leveller of all.

The Bengali landlords and businessmen, some of whom were forced to live under the thumb of the local collectors, started to express interest and patronize local youth so that they would take up the sport seriously. This was perhaps their way to show their patriotism. Origins of several clubs, most prominent of them being Mohun Bagan’s arch-rivals East Bengal, can be traced thus. Also, the fact that India became a significant force in the world of football in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s can be, in a way, attributed to this. Yes, we have thrown it all away over the years, but nobody can deny the existence of greats like Sailen Manna and Neville D’Souza. For the fact that FIFA didn’t allow barefoot football in the 1950 World Cup, denied India a chance to become the second Asian country to take part in the World Cup.

The Mohun Bagan captain Shindas Bhaduri(left) with a club patron

Culturally too, the result had a great impact. A number of plays, some even outside Bengal, were centred around this match; even in “jatra” and “nautanki” – both styles of theatre, prevalent in different parts of the country. Folk singers and painters from Bengal who moved around from one place to another, used to weave their songs and paintings based on this victory, spreading the news to different corners of the country. Poems were written, eulogizing the players as beacons of hope for a beleaguered nation.

The underground “swadeshi”(indigenous) movements carried out by youths in various parts of the country got a moral boost with the news of this victory. It is said that Binoy Bose, a prominent leader of the Bengal Volunteers, an organization founded by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, one of the greatest leaders the country has seen, used to quote this match result to inspire the youth he led.

The farmers, the boatmen, the fishermen, all of whom were subjugated under the imperial rule in one way or the other and had lost the spine to hit back, were all invigorated with the result. The players became a part of folklore, often exaggerated to giants of men who had carried out a heroic deed. 4 months after that victory on July 29, the British shifted their capital from Calcutta to Delhi on 12 December. Coincidentally the struggle for independence was gathering pace all over the land and the proud Union Jack had to be moved from the skies of Calcutta to a more secure Delhi.

However, here comes the twist in the tale. As the years passed, the sands of time covered and gradually wiped out the traces of the great victory. It didn’t even become a footnote in the history of Indian sports. The players who played and won that match, went back to their daily lives. Gradually, the country moved on, football moved backwards from 1970’s onwards while 1983 onwards, cricket as a sport, completely engulfed the nation’s collective mindset. 100 years on, the match almost found no mention in the national media. Yes, there was some song and dance in the local media, and the players cardboard cut-outs were taken out in a procession in Kolkata (which had changed its name from Calcutta), but that was just about it.

Yes, we pride over a couple of our brilliantly made sports movies, ask umpteen questions about the occasion when Pele and Stallone acted together, but we have been guilty of having this wonderful result shift out of our minds – a result significant not just for its nationalistic undertones, but also for the fact that it is one of the greatest underdog-victory stories in sports, an occasion when the barefoot David slew the Goliath. It’s not too late; let us cherish it once more in its centenary year.

I do, and I am a die-hard East Bengal fan.

The Immortal Eleven on that day

Hiralal Mukherjee (GK)

Bhuti Sukul         Sudhir Kumar Chatterjee

Manmohon Mukherjee                   Rajendranath SenGupta                            Nilmadhab Bhattacharya

Srischanda Sarkar                                                      Bijaydas Bhaduri

Jitendranath Roy                                  Abhilas Ghosh                                             Shibdas Bhaduri