Kolkata Football League 2014 was settled on the very last day, with three teams in contention for the crown. This year has been a tame affair onfield, with more drama happening off the field. After Mohun Bagan’s I-League win in 2014–15, this year’s Calcutta Football League started with a lot of promise. There was widespread anticipation that they might finally be able to wrest the crown from East Bengal after five seasons. However, financial troubles forced Mohun Bagan to loan several of their first team players to various ISL teams from the beginning of the season itself.
East Bengal brought in a new coach, Maidan veteran Biswajit Bhattacharya, after a poor finish in I-League. Bhattacharya went about his task quietly, along with his assistants Debjit Ghosh, Sanjay Majhi,and Sammy Omollo.
The club also built a good team comprising local players and foreigners. The jackpot they managed was Do Dong Hyun, a South Korean U-23 player, who almost single handedly won East Bengal a few matches in the league.
As a result, East Bengal won the CFL for a record sixth consecutive time, the second time they achieved the same in their and the league’s history (the last one came amidst a glorious run between 1970–75). They also remained unbeaten, the first time this has happened since 2000.
However, the path was not exactly rosy as the club began the tournament with a lacklustre 1-0 victory, followed by a goalless draw. In two other matches the team was trailing by 0-2, but went on to win eventually. The league saw some spectacular goals— Do Dong scored a few of them, along with Mehtab Hossain(East Bengal), Abinash Ruidas (East Bengal), Azharuddin Mallik (Mohun Bagan), and Christopher Chizoba (Kalighat). Do Dong also scored a fantastic hattrick en route to becoming the top scorer in the league. Mohammedan Sporting beat Police AC 7-0, but their prominence as the third “big team” from Kolkata has long subsided. They barely managed to be fifth in the league this year.
The biggest incidents, however, happened off the field. This includes a major gaffe by Mohun Bagan, where they violated the Governing body of Indian Football Association’s rules by not having a U-23 player on the field. They subsequently lost points because of this. Even in the match against Army XI, which they lost 0-1 (that virtually ended their title challenge), they had a chance to take three points as Army XI had flouted jersey rules. Army XI eventually ended up becoming the runner up through a series of good performances, leaving a demotivated Mohun Bagan far behind.
Mohun Bagan finished a forgettable campaign in the third place (the first time in 13 years) behind Army XI. They had the same number of points as Southern Samity, but were ahead on goal difference.
A match between Southern Samity and Tollygunge Agragami, which Tollygunge won 4-0 and saved themselves from relegation, was allegedly under the spotlight and was briefly investigated by the IFA—the governing body of football in West Bengal. Another goalless match involving Tollygunge and Aryan came under investigation too. The result ensured that the Subhash Bhowmick-coached Tollygunge stay in the top flight of the league. There were issues of matches being washed out due to rain, and some, including a crucial match between Aryan and Mohun Bagan, were halted due to poor light as well.
However, there were a lot of positives too. On display was the pure passion of East Bengal supporters, as they sensed what they now call the historical “Hexa”.They crowded each match their club played, irrespective of venues. The icing on the cake was, of course, the Kolkata Derby played at Salt Lake Stadium. East Bengal beat Mohun Bagan 4-0, the largest margin ever in a CFL Derby.The match was attended by more than 80,000 fans (East Bengal had also beaten Mohun Bagan 4-0 in a 1936 Kolkata Derby match). There were serpentine queues for tickets, and crowds braved the rains to watch their favourite team play. This was reminiscent of the last decades of the past century, when Satellite TV had not invaded our homes. The TV Channel which beamed almost all the matches live claimed that this match had the highest TRP for a single event on that particular channel, with close to 10 lakh people tuning in. The most heartening thing about the league was to see a Kolkata Derby with two Bengali coaches in charge after almost a decade. The Amal Dutta–PK Banerjee era may just be back.
The Korean revolution
When East Bengal signed a little-known South Korean U-23 player under their Asian quota, very few seemed to have heard of him. Do Dong Hyun has played in the A-League (he holds the record for being the youngest foreigner to play there) and the J-League. He has also been a part of the Korea U-20 team and even the Indian Super League, but he was a little-known entity in Indian footballing circles. However, after a terrific 1.5 months, in which Dong almost single handedly won East Bengal the league, he is now being seen as a successor to the great Majid Baskar of Iran.He has been feted as, arguably, the best foreigner to have played in India in terms of pure footballing skills and seems to be a refreshing change from the big-bodied Africans who dominated the Kolkata football scene for the past three decades. Though it’s still early days and Dong has not faced much competition so far, the Korean (recently selected for the South Korea U-23 team) has shown glimpses that with a set and stable team, he can do wonders. No wonder East Bengal extended his contract till the 2018–19 seasons.
However, having said that, Dong (who top scored with 12 goals in 10 matches) has still a long way to go to become the next Majid. He must build a better physique and must develop a habit of controlling the game from the midfield. His speed, dribbling, free kicks, and big-match temperament are a matter of no concern for his team. However, it can be a concern for the opponents. In fact, this year Dong single handedly made sure that the poor performance of other foreigners cutting across clubs was not noticed at all. Here is hoping that Dong can have a long and successful stint in Indian football and can enrich the Kolkata football scene, maybe even bringing a few I Leagues to the state.
The solution to the AIFF conundrum
Recently, AIFF announced a possibility of the merger of the ISL and the I-League because of dwindling crowds in the latter. While they did not specify the details, it was said that lack of viewership in I-League was the major reason for such a move. My sincere request to the powers that be would be to have a look at the recent East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan Derby at Salt Lake Stadium, where more than 80,000 people turned up to watch a match that was of little consequence in a minor league. Why doesn’t AIFF arrange a series of East Bengal–Mohun Bagan derbies across cities where the two clubs have a healthy fan following? Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, Guwahati, and Siliguri can be possible venues. This will ensure that (a) the two clubs don’t fall on hard times and have to loan players out, and (b) a revived interest in Indian football by fans of these two clubs. This is because this rivalry is not ordinary.It’s a battle of egos, identities, and cultures—the three things that drive a human being. It’s also the only rivalry that made the top 10 list of major football rivalries from a nation ranked below 100 in the FIFA list.