NEW DELHI: Once the reverse gear of the Indian, especially Kolkata (it was Calcutta, now Kolkata, evolution!) football is hit by not less than 50 years, glimpses could be captured which are mundane yet vibrant, quite simple but humongous, chaotic though passionate. Kolkata was shaken while sixteen young lives were gone just because of a red card shown to Bidesh Bose on 16thAugust, 1980, the same city witnessed a gallant display by the Mariners against New York Cosmos to earn plaudits from none other than the king of football, Pele. The city has witnessed the game through its thick and thin.
Back in 1920, while East Bengal was nothing but a newborn baby, Mohun Bagan already established themselves as the football powerhouse of the country and could afford to rub their shoulders with the British, thanks to their maiden IFA Shield victory in 1911. Gold & yellow outfit came out in the middle with a fire in the belly. The team, founded by Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri, showed a new fearless style of football to the battered Indians. A rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, which are being compared to the famous football derbies of the globe, saw the daylight at that crucial juncture of 1925 while East Bengal got the better of Mohun Bagan in their first ever clash, thanks to the solitary goal from Nepal Chakraborty.
1960s and 1970s were the heyday of Indian football; they attained gigantic feats including Olympic 4th position, Asian games gold and many more. East Bengal, a team gifted with painstaking skill, a troop who-could-afford-to-showcase-chutzpah, carried on to engrave a new chapter in Indian club football- to win the Calcutta Premier Division for six consecutive seasons, a feat which could only be dreamt about, a benchmark which could only be set as an example.
There was hardly any buzz while the team, led by Santo Mitra, hit the ground on the first day. Sans the retweets and likes in facebook, supporters started pouring in after a few wins. Expectation started to surge up and eventually East Bengal, under the tutelage of Mohammed Hussain, clinched the Culcutta Premier League. Such were their authority in the attacking third that they scored 52 goals over the course of the 23 matches played in the tournament. Not the strikers but also the defenders, who conceded just 3 goals, earned the connoisseurs’ bucketful applause. Sunil Bhattacharya took the armband next year and led the team to the silverware again. Incidentally, this is the only season while Mohun Bagan could salvage a draw with East Bengal, courtesy the solitary goal from P.Kannan who drew the parity after an early strike from Santo Mitra. East Bengal fans actually made merry during the six seasons as their team defeated arch rivals Mariners 7 times out of 8 clashes, including an imbecile walkover by Mohun Bagan in 1974.
As Jose Mourinho is for Chelsea FC and Alex Ferguson for Man United, it’s Pradip Kumar Banerjee aka PK Banerjee for East Bengal FC. The club surged to a newer height under him and many a player blossomed, thanks to his vigilant coaching. He handed the armband to Sudhir Karmakar next year and the team clinched the title with utter proficiency. Neither had they lost a single match nor had they conceded a solitary goal throughout the campaign, such was their stupendous supremacy on the pitch.
East Bengal supporters started smirking towards the Bagan fans. Irrespective of the outcomes against other teams, Mariners used to struggle every time while they took on East Bengal. 1973 Calcutta League was the sole edition while East Bengal lost a match, albeit they didn’t lose the focus and signed off winning the league. Swapan Sengupta led the team to their fourth successive league, having smacked 62 goals in 22 outings. The other teams hardly could find an answer while they used to face East Bengal in that era, especially after 1972. PK Banerjee’s sheer football acumen helped them a lot to establish themselves as one of the biggest football clubs of the nation, in parallel to the veteran power house Mohun Bagan. The partnership of Samaresh Chowdhury and the mastermind proved to be too heavy for their opponents and the fifth successive title was just matter of time.
The next season was an inch perfect season with cent percent winning record. East Bengal grabbed their sixth title in 1975 with sheer hegemony and absolute domination. Ashok Banerjee captained the side which was bolstered by yesteryear hero Shyam Thapa. Shyam Thapa, one of the most lethal strikers having donned the East Bengal jersey, scored the winner against Mohun Bagan. East Bengal found the net 53 times having conceded mere 4 goals to win all the 22 matches in the league. Shyam Thapa sounded quite fascinated recollecting those glorious days, “Oh! What a memory of 1975 league. Sudhir Karmakar, Surajit Sengupta and many gifted players were there in the team. Calcutta league was everything for us as well as for the fans. We could not afford to let it go.” He felt nostalgic and lost in his memory while sharing the tale of scoring the winner against Mohun Bagan, “Great day for me. Eden Gardens was packed to the brim and the screaming of the fans was just amazing. It rained last night, ground was really heavy. Don’t know how but I surpassed 4 defenders and found the goalie off his position. I left the stadium on the fans’ shoulders that day. I have been in complete euphoria, as if I was in the seventh heaven.”
East Bengal came out as the winner 114 times out of the 124 matches they played during the six seasons with a winning percentage of 94. Incidentally, the only foreign player having played for the outfit was Ruk Bahadur from Hong Kong; it illustrates nothing but the utter command of the Indian players in the game. Mohammed Habib stood out as the highest scorer for the red & Gold outfit with 50 goals followed by Subhash Bhowmick (49 goals) and Mohammed Akbar (44 goals). The whopping win against Kumartuli by 8-0 in 1973 was the biggest win for them, while B. Sen Gupta and Biman Lahiri found the back of the net along with Subhas Bhowmick and Mohammed Akbar who have scored a hattrick apiece. Subhash Bhowmick, an I-League winning successful gaffer, exalts the current troop on their success, “We had achieved the feat. These guys too. Remember, we used to play 70-minute matches while these chaps play 90-minutes. Winning a league for six consecutive years need sheer excellence as well as the tenacity to perform well.”
Come 2010, 35 years passed since then. PK Banerjee left the football maidan and sank into an oblivion; a young chap from the city, Saurav Ganguly, a-football-fanatic-in-school, took the nation to the pinnacle of cricket and retired; I-League started in 2007 and Goan clubs won it for first three seasons. Kolkata League started in the scorching months of summer, so did start the winning spree of East Bengal. An enigmatic success story was there to be scripted.
The team, led by Saumik Dey, snatched the CFL overpowering Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan SC and other Kolkata outfits. Trevor Morgan, who guided the team to three consecutive CFL trophies, still sounds elated over the success of 2010. “Frankly speaking, I was naive about Kolkata football. The fans, their passion and the media taught me a lot, I must admit. While we won it in 2010, boys got motivated for the I-League. Next two years again. Lovely memories indeed”, the gaffer feels shortage of words while sharing his memory of winning CFL with East Bengal.
East Bengal could not net more than 28 goals next year but they are more than enough to secure the trophy. Although it was a curtailed league, East Bengal wrapped up in style and continued to dominate the Kolkata Maidan. Next season, the last with Trevor Morgan, was the perfect one for the Red and Gold outfit. They smacked 51 goals in 17 matches and skipper Sanju Pradhan led the team by example.
The turmoil regarding coaches didn’t distract the camp, even after Marcos Falopa departed in the middle of the season. Armando Colaco, arguably the best Indian football coach, sailed the ship to the shores quite confidently in 2013. The triumph was marred by their only defeat of the league, even to none other than Mohun Bagan, courtesy the sole strike from Katsumi Yusa. It was the second occasion after 2011 while Mohun Bagan got the better of the league winners, though it could hardly deter East Bengal from snatching the holy grail of Kolkata maidan.
Saumik Dey, Harmonjit Singh Khabra, Mehtab Hussain and current skipper Gurwinder Singh are the only players who have been part of the squad throughout the six years. Incidentally, each of them has been handed the armband at least for one season. A jubilant Gurwinder points to a different angle while questioned about the effect of television and social media in sports, “Football was the sole source of entertainment then. Internet, TV was not there to keep us updated every second. Definitely the support hasn’t gone down, but it has gone dissected in different a pathway and it’s the crux of the story.” He has been captivated within the euphoria of the humongous win over Mohun Bagan still now, “Sealing the league with such a win over Mohun Bagan is the perfect ending of the story. Leading East Bengal to the glory has been the dream-come-true for me. We are really focussed to keep on the run unscathed.”
Do Dong, the South Korean southpaw, has been the latest revelation in East Bengal jersey. He has already found the net 12 times in 9 outings. But the gaffer Biswajit Bhattacharya isn’t being complacent at all, “He has to keep his head on his shoulders and keep on performing well. It’s our duty to keep on producing results.” The man of lesser words doesn’t want to lose focus ahead of the final match of the league, although the league is well secured, “We have to win the final match. We can’t afford to take the opponent lightly. Every match is a new outing, clock ticks from zero. Mohun Bagan match is history now.”
Silly mistakes, delusional strategies, veiled ego and turmoil within the dressing room made the I-League elude East Bengal’s grasp time and again, but the mandate for Kolkata League has been handed to them for last six years. Even in the era of apps and selfies, supporters rush to the stadium in numbers to cheer their heart out for East Bengal, such as their deceptive captivity. Records are meant to be broken, each feat in every single sport are supposed to be bettered today or tomorrow. But the sweat, the blood and iron and the ecstasy of East Bengal are meant to be scribbled in every football maniac’s heart, be it 1970 or 2015, the colour is Red & Gold and the city is Kolkata.
– By Shoubhik Mukhopadhyay