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

THE DREAM THEME

Asked by a television channel, a day prior to a major international match 11 years ago why he liked cricket better than football, an unpretentious Class IV student practising outside the Eden Gardens clubhouse said, “You have to run less!
 
 
An innocent answer, now overtaken by media hype, sponsorship power and big names. For a sport that has evolved to the T20 format, a more ‘gladiator’ version of the ‘gentleman’s game’ where “sixes and wickets!” have replaced the “blood and kill!” cries of yore, cricket has indeed become popular, so much so that it’s being played from the lanes and by-lanes of the big city to a clearing in a forest in rural India. This year’s Team India win in the World Cup has further bolstered cricket enthusiasm among the youth.
 
Well, enough said about cricket! Amidst this cri-crazy milieu came a strong idea to marry a well-liked but ‘threatened’ sport with an omnipotent and perpetually revered Lady so that the ‘multitudinous offspring’ would breathe, eat and sleep the game. Football became the theme for the recently held worship of Goddess Kali (the lady in question) by a neighbourhood club in south Kolkata. One can say that the help of Goddess Kali was taken to rejuvenate, rekindle and radiate popularity of football.
 
Football has been, is, and will be the first love of Bengal’s youth. So believe the members of the club Eastern Park Netaji Sangha (EPNS) in the Kalikapur/Santoshpur area of south Kolkata who attempted to spread their conviction, apparently aware of the inroads that cricket had made. The annual worship of the deity of power is as accepted an event among the masses as is Durga Puja or Christmas in the West. “Our club has been organising Kali Puja for the last 35 years. It occurred to us that this year, we should have football as the theme in a bid to revitalise sagging popularity levels,” said Joyjit Sinharoy, a marketing manager of a Kolkata-based firm and a member of the club, who has been visiting the Maidan (the green area in the centre of the city) to watch football since he was a kid holding his dad’s hand.
 
Not that Eastern Park has a dearth of enthusiasts for the game. In fact, none of the youth from the neighbourhood chose to go to Eden Gardens on the day India played England in the only T20 match of the series. Instead, they all went to Salt Lake Stadium for the East Bengal-Prayag United (East Bengal being the most popular club football team in this part of the world) tie. It was this love for the game that they chose to propagate, and what better way for them to do so than to take the Goddess’s help?
 
Now, a word about the ‘collaborator’. She is the Hindu Goddess associated with eternal energy and destruction of evil. Kali means ‘the black one’, the consort of Lord Shiva. Kali is considered the Goddess of time and change. Although sometimes presented as dark and violent, her earliest incarnation as a figure of annihilation still has some influence. In Bengal, Kali is venerated in the festival Kali Puja – observed on the new moon day in the month of Ashwin (October-November). It coincides with Diwali, the festival of lights which is celebrated across India by people bursting firecrackers and illuminating their houses with ‘diyas’ (small clay lamps) to signify the triumph of good over evil.
 

It is with such belief that Kali Puja is held every year by the masses. This year, Ashwin’s new moon was on October 26, and over 1,000 pujas were organised in Kolkata itself. However, perhaps the only one that had football as its theme was EPNS. The members’ enthusiasm has survived the onslaught of cricket. If one visits the area any evening, one will find groups of residents in animated discussion, and the subject is always football. Access to live international matches on TV at the clubhouse has helped a lot, not just in keeping enthusiasm alive but also in providing scope to compare Indian football with European or South American. And it was this enthusiasm the neighbourhood wanted to share and spread with the Kali Puja pandal-hopping crowds.
 
How did they go about it? A founding member of the club explained that the decision was taken about two months prior to the Puja. The design, the add-ons and the costs involved were all discussed and finalised. Then came the implementation, with division of labour being executed among the members of the club and residents of the area, both young and old. The concept was visualised by Joyjit, who proposed that the idol of the Goddess, about three feet tall, would be placed in a large ‘football’, which would have an opening outside of which the priest would perform the Puja rituals. The football structure would be three dimensional, made with cardboard panels stuck to a round frame. Three members of the club took five days to construct the football. This was suspended on a stage from rafters above, enabling the structure to sway a bit, even as the pratima (idol) inside remained fixed.
 
Along with the pandal construction, the decorations and frills surrounding it were made as well. Two huge flags, one of Mohun Bagan, the other of East Bengal, the two most popular football clubs in Kolkata, were put up alongside the ‘ball’. Charts were pasted on each flag, on which were written the complete history of all the trophies won by the respective clubs. The entries had ‘which trophy’, ‘which year’ and ‘where the match took place’. The members gathered these details from websites on the internet and then got it verified by officials of the two clubs, the founding member explained.
 
Also put up were the names and pictures of 10 legendary players of each team, as well as two replicas of the IFA shield. “We managed to get hold of prints of rare pictures, which were enlarged and put up on boards at the sides of the pandal. Two important watershed moments of both the clubs were there in pictures. One was Mohun Bagan defeating the British East York regiment in 1911, the first time an Indian club won the IFA Shield, and the second was East Bengal winning the ASEAN Cup in Malaysia in 2003, the first time that an Indian club won the title by defeating Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana Club 3-1,” Joyjit said, his enthusiasm matching the pride in having been able to procure and display such pictures.
 
The three days of the Puja were filled with football-related songs, like East Bengal’s “Machher Raja Ilish” (the king of fish is hilsa – which is the mascot adopted by East Bengal supporters as opposed to the lobster adopted by Mohan Bagan) and Mohan Bagan’s anthem song depicting the 1911 win. They also played the popular song from the Bengali film Dhanni Meye (Exceptional girl), “Sab Khelar sera, Bangalir tumi Football” (The best of all games for Bengalis is you, football). The evenings were taken up by animated debates, called “Elopatari” (Jumbles), in which the pros and cons of the two teams were discussed threadbare on the public address system.

(Clockwise from Top Left ) 1. Simon Storey, Mohan Bagan player, and his friend at the Puja pandal 2. Simon Storey 3. Flags of East Bengal club / Mohan Bagan club 4. The Puja organisers outside the pandal 5. The Puja pandal with the image of Goddess Kali seen inside the football

A large number of people visited the pandal during the three days, especially after hearing that football had been made the Puja theme. Many admitted that the theme was quite unique. Players like Simon Storey and Nemai Goswami from Mohan Bagan, and Mehtab Hussein from East Bengal, came and saw and congratulated the effort. The number of queries and encouraging messages from the hundreds of visitors over the three days that the Puja was held was ample proof that the objective of rekindling the love for the game had been achieved, not just in Eastern Park but the whole of south Kolkata as well. The spread, the get-up all combined to convey the message that football was still very much alive and kicking!