Kolkata's changing football dynamic: Divided by East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, united by ISL

Kolkata: “Never, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan will never die. It’s impossible,” Uttam Saha tells me, the creases on his face accentuated by the backlight of his massive SUV parked on the side of the road — his eyes gazing every word I quickly jot down in my notebook rested on the bonnet of a yellow taxi which said ‘no refusal’ on its side.

A crowd of about six people gathered around us as soon as they saw a journalist talking to Saha — who is the co-owner of MX5 Bengali channel and founder secretary of the Argentina Fan Club. He seems like a man whose word is law when it comes to football in the area.

His disbelief is striking though — as much as mine is when I’m informed that the dirty, narrow and almost dried up nullah in Rani Kuthi we were parked next to — was one day the Ganga. This nullah, called Adi Ganga, goes under a massive football, lit up by yellow lights — as if the World Cup was still going on.

Can Sourav Ganguly's Athletico de Kolkata bridge the East Bengal - Mohan Bagan gap? AFP

Can Sourav Ganguly's Athletico de Kolkata bridge the East Bengal - Mohun Bagan gap? AFP

As Atletico de Kolkata gears up for their Indian Super League opener against Mumbai City FC, there are no flags draped from the balconies of households, no clear chatter about the tournament — just a calm curiosity of what is coming to the city.

There’s a sense of wonderment about the ISL, but it comes with an anxiety — how will a city, divided by two major clubs, unite behind one? Will the rise of the ISL and Atletico de Kolkata spell the end of the I-League and East Bengal and Mohun Bagan?

To know, it was important to speak to every kind of fan — from the mad to the dismissive, to persons from different walks of life — from the panwallah to the loafer at a tea-stall — from channel owners to students who will skip tuition classes for the game. And finally, to football players themselves.

THE DOUBTERS IN DENIAL

Debashish Sarkar’s voice is booming — he’s the owner of a homeopathy shop and suggests medicines too — before sneaking for a quick Navy Cut away from the prying eyes of his uncle whose tyre shop is opposite his own.

Baap ko maarke beta banaaya hai! (they’ve killed the father for a son)," he says, almost scaring a couple of customers away. “If there was no I-League, where would the Indian players of the ISL have come from? Kolkata football won’t be sidelined. Kolkata football is different from Indian football. Play the ISL, I don’t mind - but save the I-League,” he declares.

Saha is slightly composed while making a point, but the words are still as strong: “Indian football can never move forward if it rides on a two-month party. This league will quickly be forgotten — it is too short to instill inspiration. And Indian football doesn’t need retired stars, it needs new policy.”

We drive past a car with an Argentina paint job before settling outside his clubhouse. It’s adorned with posters of Diego Maradona and a massive World Cup made of clay. There’s a disheveled table in the middle and a shelf lined with numerous trophies — not dusted for months. Football, apart from the Kolkata derbies and World Cups, is at a standstill even at one of the most popular fan clubs in the city.

“We know the reality, but there is a way to convince us of ISL. Keep a minimum number of under-19 players in ISL squads — extend the tournament — avert the clashes. What is this ISL, I-League, Durand Cup, Federation Cup and Kolkata League...? Too many issues of scheduling also,” the 52-year-old Saha says.

Sarkar however, will only be convinced if he sees the nation’s game rising. After a long ode on Ranti Martins and Dudu of East Bengal, he says: “Make ISL B and C leagues with age-bars. That is how age-group football will develop.”

THE PATIENT ONES

Jantu Dutta fits ceiling fans for a living — on his off days, he watches football and is an East Bengal supporter for more than 30 years.

“I’ve no thoughts because I’ve seen nothing. It looks better than the I-League — Sourav Ganguly hai, Sachin Tendulkar hai, Hrithik Roshan hai...,” he counts the celebrities on his fingers before running out of names.

Dutta is an active member of the Falguni Club in Picnic Garden — a 50-year old group of members who organize Kali Pujas and cultural festivals which include sports.

What he says next though, best answers the ISL’s most intriguing asset and its biggest liability: “Even if Atletico de Kolkata lose, we won’t feel bad. For that to happen, it will take 10 years. But when East Bengal loses, khoob dukho hoy (it hurts a lot).”

“I-League supporters are different. That is a matter of support passing over from generations — maybe down the road the ISL will be able to generate that sort of support,” says Abir Saha, who’s a founder member of the Indian Super League – Cheers for Kolkata fans forum which has close to 10,000 likes on Facebook.

Saha and his friends were busy taking photos of the refurbished Salt Lake stadium when I cornered them. They were wearing t-shirts which said ‘Atletico de Kolkata fans club’ at the back — and holding their newly minted season tickets worth Rs 1200 (six home games + one free).

“Kolkata hasn’t been exposed to anything like this — there will be turmoil if an I-League club gets ingested with the ISL in the future — which is a stronger product than the I-League ever was. But in Bengal and especially sport, things change fast. They put on their televisions and became Maradona and Argentina fans — today’s youngsters will put on the TV and see Atletico de Kolkata play. It’s all about emotional attachment,” adds 20-year-old Sabyasachi Chakraborty, also a Liverpool fan who cannot wait to sing Atletico marquee player Luis Garcia’s name from the stands.

Dhiman Sarkar of the Hindustan Times has been covering football in Kolkata for the last 21 years. While he warns that for Atletico to garner support they’ll have to do well, he also says that it’s easier for a club to succeed in Kolkata than anywhere else.

“Kolkata has been associated with club football, which makes it easier for them to accept something like this. But time is needed for a new product to be accepted. The ISL needs to be looked at in isolation — you cannot compare it to the I-League.”

THE OPTIMIST

“That is how the IPL (Indian Premier League) started off — as a tamasha. But even in its seventh season, I’ve seen Eden Gardens packed to the rafters. It’s not about Shahrukh Khan anymore, it’s about Kolkata Knight Riders,” Dhiman Sarkar says.

India has accepted quite a few leagues with success over the past few years. Barring the IPL, the Indian Badminton League was fairly popular and the Pro-Kabaddi League was surprisingly successful. The Hockey Indian League continues to find sponsors and telecast space — so why would the ISL be any different?

“It’s probably different because the leagues you mention are of sports where India does well internationally too,” Ranjit Chowdhury tells me — one eye on the TV in an inner room off his mobile shop.

Luis Garcia trains with his Athletic de Kolkata teammates. AFP

Luis Garcia trains with his Athletic de Kolkata teammates. AFP

The 25-year-old is also excited about watching famous players in action: “World Cuppers are coming to India — we can see players who we’ve always seen on TV — which is the ISL’s biggest selling point for fans like me.”

For Sabyasachi, it’s also about ISL fuelling a change in infrastructure: “Are you seeing the contrast at the stadium? If the ISL can do this to Salt Lake, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be excited of it. And about the business argument, which sport isn’t business? But we’re also seeing promises of grassroots development and academies have sprung up in the name of Atletico de Kolkata.”

ONE KOLKATA, ONE CLUB?

The madness of Kolkata probably comes out during two events — the yearly Durga Puja celebrations and the East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan derbies which regularly see over 100,000 people in attendance.

But there will be no derby in the ISL — it’s about one Kolkata, one team.

There’s no better player than Syed Rahim Nabi to explain this. The 28-year-old will captain Mumbai City FC in the inaugural ISL and has played for all three clubs in Kolkata. In December 2012, he was hit by a stone by his own fans during a derby.

“More than clubs, people here love football,” he said, after a gruelling training session at Salt Lake. “Nobody wants to finish East Bengal and Mohun Bagan — they are needed — if they’re sidelined in the course of the ISL, it’ll hurt. But to be honest, they’ve never done anything like the ISL clubs in all these years. For example, have they managed to attract a player of Anelka’s quality?”

“The absence of a derby doesn’t take away the magic for me as a reporter — because it takes time for a derby to get to the level East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan has. To expect the anticipation that a derby generates in I-League from the ISL is not fair,” Dhiman Sarkar says — again impressing on the lack of history of the ISL.

For many though, the backing for Kolkata is due to external factors — the biggest of which is Sourav Ganguly.

“Dada — Kolkata — football. What more do you want? The words Ganguly and Kolkata unite us more than East Bengal or Bagan,” says Abir Saha, putting into perspective the mindset of the Atletico de Kolkata fan.

Even a skeptic like Debashish Sarkar would agree: “At the end of the day, it’s about Bengali pride and sentiment. It’s about our ego.”

Let’s go back to the moment on the banks of the Adi Ganga. It fizzles out in summer but comes back — people hardly caring about it unless there’s water: just like the I-League comes alive only during the derbies. Adi Ganga is old, dying — and it has stalled a lot of business opportunities due to sentiment.

However, the Kolkata Metro finally began construction of six elevated stations from Tollygunj-Garia, their pillars laid on its bed — sounding the tributary's death knell in the name of development. The I-League and it’s two major Kolkata clubs are like the Adi Ganga — struggling to stay alive — lack of sponsors, television rights and the Sharda scam all blockages in their advancement and popularity.

Now comes the ISL — rife with stars and glamour — and just like those six metro stations, it may hurt sentiments and hurt peoples' feelings — but it is needed.

As Dhiman Sarkar put it: “We wouldn’t have needed the ISL if the I-League was India’s premier tournament, right?”

The writer tweets @TheFalseNo9


Updated Date: Oct 14, 2014 10:31 AM

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