Pass a football to any youngster in most of India and watch the ball being kicked back. Pass the same ball to any youngster in West Bengal and watch him play around with it, juggle it on his feet, balance it on his toe, before returning it in a perfect curve.
Against the backdrop of a prolonged lean patch for teams from West Bengal at the national I-League stage, there is an apocryphal ring to the old commentary on the culture of football in the state. The statistics are telling: No team from Kolkata has won the I-League title (earlier known as the National Football League) since 2003-04, when East Bengal FC lifted the trophy after defeating Dempo Sports Club, Goa. Mohun Bagan, the other big name from Kolkata, last won the championship almost a decade back, in the 2001-02 edition. After topping the table in the previous I-League, when East Bengal faced near relegation, Dempo SC has won the I-League four times, one more than both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal FC. Compared with the first eight editions of the National Football League, which began in 1996, when Mohun Bagan and East Bengal FC won the championship six times between them, the following six years saw them draw a blank.
Derby duo: East Bengal (in red) and Mohun Bagan are fierce
What went wrong
Bengal football’s poor show in the professionally run I-League, where the best football clubs in India compete, has inevitably raised questions on the current state of the game in a place where football has traditionally generated intense passions, vicious club rivalries, films and music albums based on club loyalties, legendary players and dinner-time conversation in homes.
Foreign power: East Bengal’s Nigerian striker Ekene Ekenwa at practice.
It’s premature to write the obituary of Bengal football, says Rana Das Gupta, executive committee member of the East Bengal club. But he does observe a growing disinterest in the game at the grass-roots, para (neighbourhood) level.
“Why would we pay for outstation players, even at an undeserved premium, if local talent was available in plenty?” Das Gupta asks. Since former India cricket captain and local lad Sourav Ganguly triggered a definite interest in the bat and ball game at the para level, cricket matches and camps have become more visible and there has been a corresponding drop in attendance at football matches. Das Gupta, in fact, partly blames cricket for football’s failing fortunes in Bengal. Local boys, he says, don’t always make the best use of the opportunities they get.
On an average, the Mohun Bagan and East Bengal FC line-up at I-League matches makes room for three or four local footballers; the rest of the team comprises players from other Indian states, and foreigners. With Indian football opening up to corporate sponsorship in the past seven-eight years, the even spread of the corporate penny has also bridged the difference in standards between Kolkata clubs and clubs from Goa, Mumbai and Punjab. While Mohun Bagan spends aroundRs10 crore annually to build and groom its team, according to the club’s general secretary Anjan Mitra, East Bengal’s annual investment on the team is to the tune of Rs7-8 crore, says Das Gupta.
“Compared to us, I would say Dempo SC spends a couple of crores more. In the current situation, it is the highly paid foreign players who are making a difference between teams,” he adds.
“It is there to see,” says Trevor Morgan, former professional English footballer and the current East Bengal FC coach. “Somebody like Ranty Martins of Dempo SC has been a consistent goal scorer. The top goal scorers over the last four years have all been foreigners. An Indian strike force seems lacking.”
Since 2004, Bengal football clubs have faced the strongest opponents in Goan club teams such as Dempo, Salgaocar and Churchill Brothers. Of the six editions of the I-League since then, Dempo has won four times and the Churchill Brothers, once. The now-disbanded Mahindra United club of Mumbai was the only non-Goan team to win the trophy, in 2005-06. The most that the two clubs from Kolkata could achieve was an individual runners-up spot.
Bengal renaissance: Coach Trevor Morgan is aiming to guide East Bengal to their first I-League title in six years.
“There has been a significant shift in Indian football’s equilibrium. Kolkata clubs no longer enjoy a monopoly and Goa has emerged as a parallel hub,” says Manas Bhattacharya, former international player and current editor of football magazine Kick-off. He reflects on the time when three Kolkata teams, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting Club, brought back the Federation Cup, a tournament that started in 1977, 20 times between them. Former international player Manoranjan Bhattacharya, who played for India between 1978 and 1989 as well as for the top two Kolkata clubs, blames the short-term, quick-fix policies of the Kolkata clubs.
“Unlike Goa, there is tremendous pressure from fans in case the Kolkata teams don’t do well. Club authorities wilt easily and both fans and the clubs are impatient for success,” he says. Bhattacharya is among the nine coaches who have trained East Bengal in the last five years. In the case of Mohun Bagan, 12 coaches have been appointed in the same period.
“Look at Dempo. Barring minor changes, they have stuck to the same team over the last three years. But in Kolkata, every player and coach is constantly on the chopping board,” Bhattacharya says.
What Bhattacharya subsequently underlines is the case of “missing team spirit”. He belongs to the time when players enrolled in Mohun Bagan and East Bengal often on the basis of their pride of belonging, and decisions were not based entirely on fat pay cheques. “With most clubs offering good money, players change allegiance every year. Regional pride no longer works these days,” he says.
Chuni Goswami is one player whose football career, spread over 22 years, has seen him playing for only one club: Mohun Bagan. Goswami is also the rare athlete who captained the Indian football team to the Asian Games gold medal in 1962, and after his retirement went on to play first-class cricket for Bengal, even captaining the state team to the Ranji Trophy final twice. Says Goswami: “Cricket and tennis are more attractive games at middle-class homes these days. Parents too push their children towards these for the returns are better than football. I might have played exclusively for Mohun Bagan out of my love for the club, but it doesn’t mean others have to do the same. It’s a professional world and I wonder what I would have done had the players’ fees been as good back then.”
The way ahead
But given the game’s century-old history in the state, Goswami thinks Bengal football is just going through a temporary bad patch. It’s only a matter of time, he believes, before the Kolkata clubs once again take the top slot at the I-League.
Even as he speaks, Mohun Bagan—under new coach Subhas Bhowmick, after Stanley Rosario got the sack following a poor I-League run this year—have held on to a hard-fought 2-2 draw against the formidable Dempo. East Bengal, currently enjoying a superb run under English coach Morgan, are contenders for the top prize.
At the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, the East Bengal team is being made to go through a rigorous workout session by Morgan. Just days ahead of their match against Salgaocar, and a couple of days after beating Jagatjit Cotton and Textile (JCT) Mills Football Club at their home ground, there is an air of buoyancy in the team. There is friendly banter too on the sidelines and a club official promises a sumptuous lunch to a journalist if the team wins against Salgaocar. Morgan knows what he is up against. “I realize that the Goa teams have had an upper hand, but that’s a stranglehold we are trying to break,” he says.
So far, the script has gone his way. East Bengal beat Dempo by a goal in their first I-league encounter this year and the team has maintained a clean slate by winning all their four matches. “The last East Bengal-Mohun Bagan match here saw 45,000 supporters turn up and it was fantastic. Expectations are big and we have to keep up the good work. No one can put more pressure on me than what I put on myself,” he says.
So will Goswami be proved right? Will these teams be able to claw their way back to the playing field they once dominated effortlessly?
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