As one of the founding members of the now defunct Mohun Bagan fan club, Green and Maroon, Debashish Mukherjee never thought it fit to take his wife to the football stadium in Kolkata. A derby against arch rivals East Bengal, he knows, can turn violent any moment, for it is an emphatic free-for-all display of reckless machismo, and can be misogynistic too.

On a recent Sunday evening at the city’s Salt Lake Stadium, as local team Atlético de Kolkata (ATK) took on the Delhi Dynamos in the opening edition of the Indian Super League (ISL), Mukherjee’s wife occupied one of the newly installed plastic bucket seats at the stadium along with his friends, their wives and school-going children—it was the first time the women and children were witnessing the football-stadium atmosphere in Kolkata.

With ATK leading by a goal, many other firsts were being scored. Nearly 30 years after the Mexican Wave—a crowd-energized wave across a stadium where groups of spectators briefly stand and raise their arms and then sit down again—hit a crest of international popularity at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, a football stadium in Kolkata was throbbing to the sight and sound of the audience surge. Surprised by the first one, Mukherjee’s wife threw a bangled arm up in the air, somewhat limply, as the second roll reached their row, joining forces with the over 50,000 people who had gathered in the floodlit stadium.

The Wave flows best when a packed stadium is unanimous in its support for a team and Kolkata, known for its sharply fractured football fan base, was for the first time playing as—and rooting for—a single team, ATK. The Wave was indicative of a dramatic change in the football rituals of a city repeatedly mentioned by commentators and ISL promoters as the spiritual nub of the game in India.

The arrival of the carnivalesque ISL, the commercialization of the game, and the inclusion of a clutch of celebrity foreign players and coaches, is being widely seen as the biggest change agent in the football-playing traditions of the city since the game started being played there in the 1880s.

If crowd support is any indication, it could provide a shot in the arm for professional football in Kolkata. It could also, however, pose a threat to the popularity and finances of the city’s famous clubs.

The Mohammedan Sporting Club is in dire financial straits. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The Mohammedan Sporting Club is in dire financial straits. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

They are already in somewhat dire straits. A day before Sunday’s encounter, and after a rip-roaring week of the ISL, Mohammedan Sporting Club officials decided to stop the activities of their senior team for the season. They hadn’t been able to pay the staff or players salaries for three months. While this startling news led to the sudden emergence of sponsors and the 123-year-old club was able to reverse its earlier decision of not fielding the defending champion team in the Durand Cup, its financial future is anything but secure.

In September-end, the bank accounts of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan were frozen by the Enforcement Directorate; the clubs had reportedly received sponsorship money from the Saradha Group, which has been at the centre of a chit-fund scam currently being investigated in Bengal. Debabrata Sarkar, a prominent EB official, has been in Central Bureau of Investigation custody after being arrested for his alleged role in the scam in August.

There seems to be no end to the financial worries plaguing Mohammedan Sporting. Sultan Ahmed, club president and a member of Parliament, says that while the association of the Prophet’s name with that of the club’s has arguably given it the highest fan following across India and among followers of Islam, it has also acted against their commercial interests. “Unlike Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, we cannot accept a liquor company as our sponsor," he adds. “Moreover, many companies selling consumer goods shy away from associating their brands with Mohammedan Sporting. They think that it will turn off their non-Mohammedan customers," adds Ahmed.

Mohammedan Sporting Club’s old mementos and trophies. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Mohammedan Sporting Club’s old mementos and trophies. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

If Ahmed is to be believed, it is indeed a sad commentary on a club that was the first Indian side to win a championship abroad when it lifted the Aga Khan Gold Cup in Dhaka, in 1960. “To run a competing first-division football club in Kolkata, one must have an annual budget of around 10 crore, while Mohun Bagan has spent as much as 2 crore on a single player, Odafe Okolie. Unless all the big clubs immediately decide on player auctions, like at the ISL, instead of poaching each other’s players, not just Mohammedan Sporting but all Kolkata clubs will suffer," says Ahmed. Both MB and EB are sponsored by United Breweries.

“The sorry state of affairs at Mohammedan Sporting and the involvement of the other clubs in the Saradha scam might have a negative spiralling effect on football in Kolkata. The poor performance of the Kolkata clubs is also a result of the bungling by club officials," says veteran football commentator Novy Kapadia. “My reading is that if the ISL gets better—and they do have deep pockets—the support for Kolkata clubs among the younger generation will get affected. On the other hand, Atlético de Kolkata too will see the maximum fan support among all ISL franchises."

ATK supporters. Photo: Prateek Choudhury/Hindustan Times
ATK supporters. Photo: Prateek Choudhury/Hindustan Times

Getting former India cricket captain and Kolkata icon Sourav Ganguly to be the face of ATK was one way of forming a bond with fans, the chief executive officer of Atlético de Madrid, Miguel Ángel Gil Marin, had said on the sidelines of a press conference earlier this year in Kolkata.

The gamble is paying off. On the day when ATK faced the Delhi Dynamos, and more interestingly, international football luminaries like Luis García and Alessandro Del Piero squared off on the field, there was a resounding cheer when Ganguly’s face was beamed on the stadium’s two giant screens. Outside the stadium, ATK bandanas and flags were selling briskly; inside, many could be seen sporting the team’s red and white jersey, picked up from the roadside stalls at Kolkata’s Maidan Market—the Kolkata football fan’s newest shades of affiliation.

ATK celebrate a goal during an ISL match against the Delhi Dynamos. Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP
ATK celebrate a goal during an ISL match against the Delhi Dynamos. Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

“You see the change. Fans are not arriving in hired tempos or buses but in cars, and parking is becoming an issue. The large number of women spectators is also a sign of change," says Dhiman Sarkar, long-time follower of the game and veteran football writer. There is the unusual presence of many non-Bengali speakers in the galleries and young girls clicking selfies. A glass of cola sells for 50 (“You are sitting on a 750 bucket seat, dada," the hawker counters an old-timer used to paying 20 for a glass, an average of 100 for a ticket, and sitting on concrete benches during MB-EB derby games). Not a single abuse is thrown; much of the audience follows the game listlessly, and when the loudspeaker goads the crowd to chant “ATK, ATK", it almost sounds like “etiquette, etiquette" when a section feebly responds.

Speaking informally at the Novotel hotel a day after the match ended in a 1-1 draw, following a spectacularly curling long-distance equalizer by Delhi Dynamos’ Czech midfielder Pavel Eliáš, ATK goalie Subhashis Roy Chowdhury tapped in on the likely sociological impact of ISL with an anecdote of a family in Kolkata. “The mother mentioned her son’s interest in football and wants him to be involved too. Families getting interested is good news for the game."

At the other end is a long history of intense football rivalry in Kolkata between MB and EB. It is as much a fan-supported affair as ISL aims to be. Divided ethnically along the lines of Ghotis (West Bengal natives and MB supporters) and Bangals (Hindu refugees from East Pakistan/Bangladesh and traditional EB diehards) at its extreme ends, the support is vehemently racist and politically incorrect, while also being a display in football frenzy.

Not a single abuse is thrown; much of the audience follows the game listlessly, and when the loudspeaker goads the crowd to chant ‘ATK, ATK’, it almost sounds like ‘etiquette, etiquette’ when a section feebly responds

Though years of intermarriage and passage of time have somewhat blurred the rigid divide among regular fans, MB-EB will continue to be a kink handed down hereditarily, even if tenuously, say many, including club officials, in the face of ISL’s growing popularity. “The number of hits my website gets during MB-EB matches is ten times more than what it got during Atlético’s matches. This sort of passion will be difficult to replicate," says Chakraborty.

A collage of old star players of Mohammedan Sporting
A collage of old star players of Mohammedan Sporting

On 31 August, an estimated 70,000 gathered for yet another MB-EB clash—the 150th encounter between the two teams. The threat of violence on the clogged roads and galleries was like a palpable being as hundreds of policemen guided fans to their respective blocks. Profanities were exchanged openly between rival fans, fists and pelvic regions were thrust at each other. There were sober followers of club football too—including many elderly—who remained fixated on facts, figures and match statistics.

When East Bengal were 3-1 up, the roar from their end of the stadium was like the synchronized burst of a thousand crackers: “Eaaast Bengaaal"—clap clap clap—“Eaaast Bengaaal"—clap clap clap. The silence of Mohun Bagan fans was deafening too.

In between, at half time, a shared roar reverberated across the stadium and club loyalties. With the ISL still more than a month away, a huge banner went up, held up by nearly a hundred men. It loudly proclaimed: “From tomorrow, we are all Atlético."

As of now, it is ATK that seems to be on the winning side.

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