Not too many Indian football fans were truly convinced when the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided to launch the National Football League (NFL) in the 1996-97 season. Sceptics had more reason to doubt the NFL’s success quotient when Mohun Bagan made a shocking exit in the qualifiers itself.
How an alleged fixed match between two teams from a particular city led to Mohun Bagan’s departure from the meet added intrigue to the mix. But, despite the drawback and the absence of a Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal tussle, the inaugural NFL proved a huge hit, arguably the best league in Indian football history till date.
When Mohun Bagan finally joined the fray next season (and promptly bagged the title), all eyes were on the MB vs EB match, the Kolkata derby. Phrases like “clash of the titans” and “mouth watering encounter” were being used freely in the media to describe the marquee fixture.
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The then NFL chairman Alberto Colaco, however, was in no mood to rush things. He drew his schedule carefully and judiciously and allowed both sides to settle their teams for three rounds before the clash on January 6, 1998 at the Salt Lake Stadium, which narrowly went the Mohun Bagan way.
It has become a norm since then. The NFL was rechristened the I-League 10 years after it was launched, but the two Kolkata teams were never made to play at the start. Never for attracting more footfall or to lift the ever-dwindling TV ratings. Both teams were provided a fair amount of time to prepare themselves before they indulged in the prestige battle.
The inaugural ATK Mohun Bagan versus SC East Bengal match in the Indian Super League (ISL), scheduled for November 27, seems to have been scheduled without keeping sporting merit or tradition in mind. It will give the necessary boost to the league’s TV ratings (now more important than ever because of empty stands) and the league itself. But it hardly helps the teams, especially in a season when they never had a chance to play a single competitive match prior to the start of the ISL.
Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have engaged in a fabled rivalry for the past 95 years, ever since they met for the first time in the 1925 Calcutta Football League (CFL). Since then, every top tournament in the country has lured them to play as it guaranteed gate sales and enhanced the prestige of the meet. But never before had their reputation, or performance, been compromised so blatantly for the benefit of a tournament.
Former India skipper Bhaskar Ganguly, who led the country in the 1983 Asian Games, finds no “sporting interest” in rushing the fixture so early in the league.
“This only shows people who run Indian football have absolutely no idea of the background of the game in India,” says Ganguly, who played 14 seasons for East Bengal and two seasons for Mohun Bagan. “Both teams should have been given a few weeks to settle down before playing the most important match from their point of view. It was clearly scheduled to grab television coverage. Sporting interest was not in their [the ISL organisers’] minds.”
Both the teams have been caught on the wrong foot for sure. ATK Mohun Bagan, the team that absorbed the older club, are luckier though. They, more or less, have a set squad from last season (when they played under a different name). They also have played one game, a victory that too against Kerala Blasters on the opening day last weekend.
East Bengal’s plight in their centenary year is tricky. It might even evoke sympathy from Mohun Bagan fans. Firstly, their status in the ISL has been jeered by many as that of gatecrashers. So much was their eagerness to be the part of the league that they sold stakes to the first investors they could manage to be present in Goa.
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It didn’t end here. In fact, it was only the beginning. All the talks of legacy and tradition have finally been reduced to a level where they would take the field against their biggest rivals in the season opener under a coach who has never even set foot in Kolkata. The same goes for their foreign recruits.
However, that hasn’t prevented East Bengal coach Robbie Fowler from describing how important the derby is to him and his boys. “We know how tough any game would be. But for us to get the reigning champions and to get a massive derby out of the way is something for us to train for. It’s a massive game for our players and we can’t wait. We will be looking forward to it.”
ATK Mohun Bagan coach Antonio Habas hasn’t gone that far. Having spent a few years in Kolkata, he could never be spotted at the derby, which created massive traffic jams in the city every time it was played. He, however, has refrained himself from making unnecessary noises and merely said he was aware of the importance of the tie.
He has also already made clear he isn’t exactly happy with fielding the team at such a short notice. A longer preparatory camp would have been ideal, but under the current situation in India, he had no option. In fact, nobody had an option.
But those who run the show, did. From the footballing point of view, it would have been ideal to draw a schedule where the two teams could play at least a couple of matches if not more before they renew their great rivalry. It would have given them the necessary time to sharpen their weapons before they play this most important fixture.
Former East Bengal and Bagan star Subash Bhowmick, a 1970 Asian Games bronze medallist, concurs.
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“It would have been ideal to schedule the match after a few rounds,” he says. “It would have given both teams more time to settle their teams. It is a huge match from the perspective of the two teams. If Indian football wants to extract benefit out of it, then their match midway through the season would have been the best idea.”
The tweak in the fixture permutations would not have taken rocket science or complex math either if the right intent was there. It was as simple as swapping a match. Bagan and Blasters played the opening tie in the league. Blasters then played their second match against NorthEast United FC on November 26, a day before the derby. If Bagan was slotted against NorthEast and Blasters against East Bengal, then the change in the fixture would have led to the derby being staged on December 20, after both teams having played six rounds each.
But when the prime target is to extract benefit by promoting the product, then the actual product itself tends to take a back seat. The MB-EB tie is no exception. This match has great market value. The temptation was too much. Then again, it could also backfire for the league, especially if the action is lacklustre simply because the teams aren’t well-oiled yet, feels Prasanta Banerjee, who played nine seasons for East Bengal and seven for Mohun Bagan.
“This schedule is unfair on both teams, especially for East Bengal,” Banerjee, who has played in two Asian Games adds. “Generally, you don’t fix the most-watched match of the season at the start. There is no footballing merit in the decision. It could backfire on the organisers, too. If the match turns out to be of pedestrian quality, then it may affect the whole league.”
However, there are more layers to the fixture story when you look at the history between the two teams. In the past, both teams have been extremely fussy over fixtures when it came to playing each other. After all, a negative result could leave their large number of fans upset. Even last season, one of the two teams were accused of wriggling out of the I-League tie fearing a bad result. There were several instances when one of the teams backed away citing frivolous reasons.
It is different this time though. Neither of the two owners uttered a word or requested for more time before playing the tie once the schedule was announced. Are they unaware of the sentiment and importance attached to this encounter or simply not bothered? Or both?
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