The world was going through a difficult time when the East Bengal Club was formed in 1920.
Europe’s landscape was still scarred by World War I. A thirty-one-year old Adolf Hitler was slowly gaining control over the German Workers’ Party. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had entered Indian politics only five years ago.
Kolkata (Calcutta then) in 1920 was still considered the biggest city in the eastern part of the world. Its soccer league (CFL) was the oldest in Asia, governed by strict colonial rules. Only two Indian teams were allowed entry into the First Division. Rest of the berths were reserved for European teams.
For East Bengal, it was a battle against odds from the beginning. Like Lord Cornwallis’ Permanent Settlement act, Mohun Bagan and Aryans Club’s presence in the First Division was stable and perpetual.
In 1920, after its inception, East Bengal had entered the Second Division. At the end of the 1924 season, they emerged joint champions with Cameron B and demanded promotion since Cameron A were already in the first division. Thus began Indian football’s first struggle to officially free the game of racial bias.
To cut the long fascinating story short, East Bengal emerged triumphant after a bitter and prolonged battle, on three counts. They bagged a place in the First Division. The cap on two Indian teams in the CFL was removed. The then IFA secretary HE Meddlycott was forced to put down his papers.
Jump cut to 2020. East Bengal in their centenary year are facing yet another “promotion-relegation” crisis. Of a different kind though.
Their arch-rivals Mohun Bagan are all set to move to the cash-rich franchise league. They have found opulent partners in the city to tie the knot with. Their fans widely hail it as “promotion”, and rightly so, since the franchise league is now officially the country’s top league.
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East Bengal remain where they were all these years — in the I-League. Yet, strangely enough, it is viewed as a kind of “demotion”, a near “quarantine” from the country’s top bracket. As if not playing the franchise league would bring the curtains down on East Bengal’s glorious run.
Time one considered the other side of the story, too. East Bengal are not yet part of the franchise league for multiple reasons.
They have no money to pay the participation fee. No investor is ready to take up their cause fearing “bad investment”. The club has a recent history of poor management that has often clashed with outgoing investors. And mostly for completely wrong reasons.
True. But can every problem be solved by joining the bandwagon of the franchise league? At the same time, will the century old club be ruined by maintaining the status quo?
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Let’s start discussing the second problem first. Manoranjan Bhattacharya is an East Bengal legend, who once played for the club 15 seasons in a row. “I would be happy if East Bengal play the franchise league,” he says.
“But millions of fans will never desert them even if they play I-League or CFL only. The club has gone through many ups and downs, supporters have remained loyal. The main thing is not choosing which league East Bengal will play in. The target should be to run the club properly.”
Bhattacharya is spot on. To eliminate people with vested interest is the biggest challenge. Former East Bengal winger and coach Subhas Bhowmick laughs at the mention of fans withdrawing support if East Bengal switch over to the franchise league.
“You are probably spending too much time on social media. Let’s assume East Bengal only play the CFL. Fans will be hugely disappointed but will still come to the East Bengal-Aryans ground. In numbers. I wish former East Bengal players would come forward and convey this idea to fans across the globe,” says Bhowmick.
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The message is to clear any confusion whatsoever. No one (upstarts included) should underestimate East Bengal’s influence on Indian football. But will sentiments alone be able to act as a breaker on the new wave that has hit the sport in India?
Again, how long the wave will continue remains to be seen. More because of recent developments. Coronavirus has upstaged everything across the globe. Football is not excluded. Clubs all over the world are gasping for breath. Even in Barcelona FC, footballers have been requested to consider a pay cut for the season.
This is not to suggest Indian football will suffer the same fate. One sincerely wishes it does not. Yet, East Bengal can wait. As it is, they are unlikely to land any investor after this global fiasco. In that case, what is the hurry? Why not continue to play the I-League and make the grade when promotion-relegation starts in near future?
Influential East Bengal official Debabrata (Nitu) Sarkar is often accused of being the stumbling block to East Bengal’s progress. His unjust demands have forced many possible sponsors to a hasty retreat.
Sarkar says he doesn’t want East Bengal to lose their identity just for the sake of funds. “The club is indeed going through a difficult phase. Fans had always been our main strength. I am confident they will remain with us. We will continue to work according to the situation. Things will improve in times to come,” he says.
An over-optimistic view, definitely. And over-simplified. The club may suffer a steep fall that would be hard to arrest. But then, corporatisation is not the only solution. A balance has to be struck. Somewhere, at some level.
Mohun Bagan became an iconic institution more than 100 years ago. Their historic triumph over the East Yorkshire Regiment in the 1911 IFA Shield final played a huge role in shaping the future of the game in India.
East Bengal’s rise was different. The partition of the subcontinent in 1947 made them the people’s club. Millions of displaced people from the other side of River Padma took refuge in West Bengal, with no shelter, no money and no food.
In the 50s, 60s and a part of 70s, East Bengal were expected to bring alive their shattered dreams on the pitch. By hook or by crook. East Bengal fans were often labelled unruly but they were always ready to lay down their lives for the club. Widely regarded as the club of the ‘have nots’, fight to the death was East Bengal’s motto on the pitch.
It was a difficult period when East Bengal were formed in 1920. The situation is no different a century later. Not to abandon their character will perhaps be the best option for the club in this trying time.
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