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Durand Cup Despatch: Slush Hour Dates With the Big Three of Kolkata

Durand Cup Despatch: East Bengal bring the Spanish sizzle. Mohammedan Sporting regress to rainy day puddles. Mohun Bagan grumble, stumble, almost crumble all the while admonishing their opponents' lack of pedigree.
Mohammedan Sporting vs Aryan Club Calcutta Football League match

Aryan Club defenders try in vain as Mohammedan Sporting score after a melee in the puddle of water in front of goal during their Calcutta Football League match.

August 6, East Bengal ground

East Bengal are cruising 6-0 against Jamshedpur FC. The side’s fifth goal — off a blistering counter attack — has the fans pumping on the stands. The mood is festive.

A day before this, I ventured a step further into the rabbit hole that is Kolkata football fandom. I decide to buy a ticket for the game, and not cheat my way into the stands via media credentials. The buying itself is fairly easy. You log on to the host website, pick a stand and pay up. It is the collection that is a pain. You have to physically present yourself to the ticketing counter, 24 hours before the game. Which basically meant that minutes after booking my ticket online, I took a taxi to the ground to pick up my tickets, where I found a long queue of people who booked online and figured it out before I did. 

The internet at the counter isn’t working very well, which meant it took at least five minutes for each customer’s booking to be verified. Next to the malfunctioning window is another one with a smaller queue. For people who want to buy their tickets on the spot. Needless to say this functioned smoothly. It is mostly used by touts. Welcome to digital India. 

Back to the game, where East Bengal are cruising 6-0 against Jamshedpur, who have fielded such a young team that their central defender is naive enough to follow my idiocy on Twitter. It starts raining and almost immediately a thousand umbrellas open up. As an outsider — and also a bit of a monsoon child — I don’t have one. But this is a gentle rain, not the top heavy barrage of Mumbai, or the air cleansing detox of Delhi. It relieves the humidity, directs a lovely breeze our way and ensures the players suffer. The umbrellas open and close in tandem. It is a synchronised motion, that is choreographed to perfection. Sometimes they open before the rain arrives. In anticipation of what will be. This isn’t soothsaying, it is rain making.

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Overshadowing this rain and the general thumping is all the news coming from Kashmir, or the lack of news coming from Kashmir. By halftime, with the result decided, conversation shifts. Everyone is worried about what it all means. 

“Imagine being stuck without Internet, phone signal or any outside communication.”

“It is like a jail.”

“Jail is better. At least you are told you will be in jail.”

“Are the Real Kashmir team playing? In Kalyani? Safety hoga (will it be safe)?”

At the end of the game, the East Bengal fans break into a chant about Mohun Bagan. It is in Bengali and it isn’t polite. Everyone I ask refuses to translate it for me. Let’s just leave it by saying, the chant questions their rivals’ parenthood.

August 7, Mohammedan Sporting ground

This was a long way to come for a game like this. Mohammedan are playing Aryan Club in their Calcutta League opener, and it has been raining for 45 minutes straight. The game hasn’t even begun. Getting to the stands means navigating slush, deep puddles and a slippery patch of tile.

‘Pehli baar dekhne ko aaye (are you coming to watch for the first time)?’ I am asked. No, of course not. Baarish mein pehli baar (first time in the rain).

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Now this is pure Kolkata rain. It is mushy, it is a downpour, it is warm, it is sticky and it turns all your immediate surroundings into a puddle waiting for a car tyre. There is little worth mentioning from Mohammedan’s game, except that Tirthankar Sarkar scores their equaliser straight from a corner after the Aryan goalkeeper slips in the puddle that is his six yard box, and this is the year 2019. Apparently, Indian football has improved drastically over the last three or four years, Virat Kohli has said. 

In the stands, the choicest of abuse is rained down on the Mohammedan management. Bilal Ahmad Khan, the team manager is at the centre of most the fan’s wrath. They don’t chant in unison, but at various points of time, many of them rhyme his name with the hindi word for a pimp. 

Aryan’s goalscorer, Kuti Ademola, signed for the team a week before the deadline after leaving Minerva Punjab FC. It is common knowledge on the stands that Ademola was rated highly by Diego Maradona (a fact that is more worrying to me than exciting), was very unhappy at Minerva, and had expressed an interest in joining Mohammedan before Aryan scooped him up. He had landed up in Kolkata on Bilal’s behest, only to be stranded at the airport and then picked off by an agent with links to Aryan. Bilal failed to arrange a taxi to bring him to the club.

“I just hope he doesn’t score against us,” was what Bilal had muttered under his breath to me before the game. But he did. And the crowd let the management know, in some truly poetic abuse, what they think of this incompetence. ‘Khatam kar diya hai club ko Bilal’ (Bilal had destroyed the club) is the only one that can be printed for reading.

When the referee denies Mohammedan what looked like a clear penalty, a man from the upper decks of the stands flings one of his chappals towards the playing area. It hits a policeman standing guard on the edge of the fence. Everyone laughs, while the offender slinks away. The chappal floats in a puddle at the edge of the pitch for the remainder of the game.

While all this rains down from the stands, the secretary, general manager and the media manager, sit and watch the game secluded, in the safety of scaffolding and blocked from view by a massive gate. They can hear all the vitriol, even take great mirth in it, but thankfully don’t ever have to face the music. 

August 8, Mohun Bagan Ground

That one kid wearing the Indian Super League (ISL) club ATK’s jersey, full marks to him. Not only did he wear it, he wore it through the game, and then on the streets and then on the bus back home. All this while he copped abuse of the kind he may never catch again for a while. He sits in the ‘Members’ section the whole game, keeps his eyes on the pitch, and at full time picks up his bag, puffs out his chest and walks out.

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The Bagan fans unveil a huge banner before the two teams come out. ‘Say no to plastic’ it says. Right next to those words is the ATK logo.

This is Bagan’s big boys against ATK’s kids. And as much as the supporters want to see a shellacking, the ATK boys are actually playing the better game. Bagan bully a goal off a set piece, get another off a defensive error, and instead of hitting cruise control, hit the button marked ‘panic in possession’. ATK pull one back, and then keep hammering away for a second. 

News had floated in earlier in the day that Bagan (and East Bengal by default) are keen to join the ISL. They are trying to hold conversations with FSDL for this. Their biggest fear — one which has prompted them to break away from the shaky partnership of I-League rebels — is an inability to attract sponsors. Bagan have no sponsor for this season and East Bengal’s Quess pullout has been spoken about on these very pages a few times now. If the fans matter at all, and if football is favoured as a game for those on the terraces, these two clubs will soon join the big league.

Unlike the East Bengal fans, who seem a genial, somewhat whimsical sort, mostly capable of poking fun at their own sorrow, the Bagan fan is an outraged, disapproving, infuriated, wide eyed maniac. Every missed pass is castigated with fury. Every blocked tackle with primal cheers. This isn’t a joyous celebration of their team’s football. This is a throbbing criticism of it. On their way out some fans vandalise an overhead gate designed to celebrate East Bengal’s centenary. Mohun Bagan officials apologise and offer to pay for repairs.

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“ATK won’t have this support ever in Kolkata,” says the CEO of a well reputed football academy sitting next to me. “Which brings about the question, why not leverage this, instead of alienating it.”

Before the game had begun, as I was conditioning my senses to the freezing press box, a Lt. Col, a member of the Durand Cup committee, asked me, in all seriousness, how these football clubs made money.

“If they don’t then what is in it for them?”

I ask him why the Army organises this tournament. Surely, they don’t hope to reap a profit from it. He laughs. I can’t say why.

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