by Rajarshi Sengupta
My first match on the Kolkata Maidan was an East Bengal – Mohun Bagan derby match sometime in 1972 or 1973. For an impressionable 6 or 7 year old, it was a great experience, with passionate crowds, shouting their lungs out, but taking care to ensure that some of the cuss words did not reach my young ears. I think East Bengal won 2-1, which was propitious, as I had made up my mind before the game, that I would be a supporter of East Bengal.
That first visit started a long relationship with the Kolkata Football League, of visiting derby matches, of being awed by the passion and frenzy that these matches brought out in the 70s. My favourite memory is that of East Bengal beating Mohun Bagan 5-0, on the Mohun Bagan ground in the 1975 Shield Final. A young supporter of Mohun Bagan committed suicide, unable to withstand the humiliation of his team. That was shocking.
At that time, Mohammedan Sporting, was a contender too, albeit mostly relegated to the third position. They had a core nucleus of players – Sajjad, Latif-ud-din – and players who either went on to shine for the other two clubs, or had come over from one of them. One such transfer affected the course of the first East Bengal-Mohammedan Sporting match I watched from the stands, the 1979 League Match.
Samaresh (Pintu) Chowdhury had transferred over from East Bengal. It was not an amicable parting. East Bengal had to win this match to win the Kolkata League. If they drew or lost, Mohun Bagan would be the champions. Pintu Chowdhury, a die-hard East Bengal player, from its glory days in the early 70s, played like a man possessed, against his old club, and ensured that East Bengal did not have a win.
What I remember most from the match is a middle-aged Bengali lady – it was uncommon for single women to come to a football field. A staunch East Bengal supporter, she was crying her eyes out, and alternately cursing Pintu Chowdhury and the club administrators for bringing the club to such a pass. As her language grew more colourful, extremely unusual for a middle-aged Bengali lady, others dragged her away. But the abiding passion and the merging of the individual’s identity with that of the club struck a deep chord.
Mohammedan too had its huge band of unflinching supporters, across age groups. Like my maternal aunt, my mashi. At a family gathering where football was being discussed, mostly around East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, she silenced us all by asking why we did not support Mohammedan Sporting.
Growing up in Barisal in the 1930s, she was a keen supporter of the club, as they went from strength to strength winning five league titles on the trot. She told me of the song composed on that momentous occasion – Mohammedan, tujhe / tujhko lakho salaam.
My interest in Kolkata football continued till the late eighties when many of the foreign players – Majid Baskar, Jamshed Nassiri, Cheema Okirie – made their Kolkata debuts for Mohammedan Sporting. Returning to the city after 7 years in the US, I could not relate to the new players any more. Yet it was with a touch of sadness that I read of Mohammedan winding up its football operations for this year due to a lack of funds which does not augur well for its future. It was a part of my growing up, and it seemed that yet another piece of my childhood was now fading away.
In a way, though, it was inevitable. All the Big 3 clubs in Kolkata have stuck to their old ways of running clubs without any thought for change. The funding is always uncertain and depends on which budding club official wants to get social recognition by being the principal investor in a particular year. There is no professional management, no attempt to market the clubs or its merchandise. Coaches get fired once every few months. The impression is of competing cliques ruling the clubs on whims. There are minimal investments in junior teams, infrequent elections, and a general feeling of resting on fading old laurels. The lack of any ability to access or raise professional funds has led to the situation where both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan now have their accounts sealed due to possible leverage of Ponzi funds.
The social milieu of Bengal has also changed fundamentally. In the 70s, football was the ticket out to a better life. The presence of open spaces in the suburbs helped dedicated coaches, the Kshit-das of the world, push their wards to fight, not just on the football field, but in a wider social context, for a better life and for social recognition. Cricket has replaced football in the dreams of generations, as the rewards are much better and on an international scale. Cricket grew more organized, was run more professionally and more palatable to the aspiring Indian middle class. As Moti Nandi, who covered sports for Anandabazar, once wrote, the difference between how sports were run could be understood by looking at the names of the people who ran the sports – respectable middle class / upper middle class names for cricket and nicknames like Goju, Paltu, Keshta for football. There was a lot of truth in that class-conscious angst, as increasingly the lower middle class aspired for the new dreams around cricket.
Moti Nandi also wrote two seminal football novels – Striker and Stopper. The first is about a young striker who claws his way to the top through strikes at mills, through temptations on the field - a story of the usual lower middle class struggle in Bengal told through the prism of football. Stopper was about an old player, about to retire, taunted and discarded by his old club, who comes back for one last hurrah. Neither could be written today – the characters would not be relevant. You will not get such people any more who strive to survive and succeed via football, who live and breathe football. T
hey are other entertainment options – reality shows, easier games – to shine in. The degree to which one had to struggle for social recognition has changed, as has the ability for football to deliver that recognition. An upper middle-class youngster might be following Manchester United via television rather than East Bengal on the field.
Thus Mohammedan Sporting’s fate does not come as a surprise. Yet one still feels the pangs. If you go to any derby match in Kolkata even today, the stadium would have at least 60,000 people dancing, shouting, yelling their hearts out. They still come packed like sardines, riding a matador, vicarious participants in a bloody gladiatorial contest. For 90 minutes football is almost a metaphor for a sharp, short skirmish, if not a war.
In contrast, the ISL is a far more sanitized experience, a carefully crafted entertainment option, one which wants families to come in to the corporate box for a good evening out, with solid football of course, but without the rowdiness. Few of the derby viewers would have the money to come in for an ISL season. More importantly road warriors on matadors are not the target audience segment that ISL wants to cultivate. Many corporate teams – Mafatlal, JCT, Mahindra – have given up on football in India. This may be one way to get them back in as sponsors.
ISL is still less of a professional circus than IPL, in my humble opinion. But the structuring, the Bollywood-ization, all point to a much more manufactured presence of genteel glamour. Owners who have perhaps never visited Cooperage stadium in Mumbai now own franchisees. There is no doubt about the quality of the football, but this is also football wrapped around entertainment, almost like a reality football show, with old stars and young footballers – a careful balance that ensures that the young Indian footballers are not totally shown up as what they lack in skill and technique, they make up in stamina and speed, two areas where the semi-retired footballers struggle.
Will the ISL help Indian football? I hope so, but am not certain. It will certainly be attractive to watch good football, some classic goals. A far more gentrified audience will now visit the stands, spending much more money, looking for entertainment. Their wallets will provide much needed profitability for sponsors. Will it raise standards? The jury is still out there but I am hopeful that with this corporatization, we will also see junior squads, structured regimes for footballers, and an emphasis on the game.
What will be different is that it will be unthinkable of a middle-aged Bengali woman to cry her eyes out publicly, berating and cursing her team, when they cannot get through a stellar defense led by an old player with a chip on his shoulder. It will be unthinkable, and here I am thankful, for a young supporter to take his own life, as he could not stand the humiliation of his football team.
We live in a time when it is the notion of a city-state as a sporting warrior, that reigns, effectively drawn from US sports franchisees. A city thus unites across an Atlético de Kolkata, and is not torn apart by vicissitudes of religion or geography or moholla as it would be for East Bengal, Mohun Bagan or Mohammedan Sporting.
In such a context, it is only natural that Mohammedan Sporting would face a bleak future. There is no business case for it to survive. There is nothing right or wrong about this, it is just the way things are and will be.
Rajarshi Sengupta is a management consultant who is discovering the pleasures of writing.
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Updated Date: Oct 22, 2014 14:14:19 IST