After refusing to play the Kolkata derby on Wednesday, Mohun Bagan added another dubious distinction to a list that has players’ salaries being delayed and the club having to pay the severest fine imposed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
According to statistics provided by the club on Tuesday, Mohun Bagan lead East Bengal 4-3 in the score for walkovers against each other.
The last time a no-show happened in the Kolkata derby was in 1985 and then too it was Mohun Bagan who hadn’t turned up. For Asia’s oldest football club, one that was also the first Indian team to win the IFA Shield, this was the second time in less than four years that Mohun Bagan have opted out of a derby.
In 2012-13, they pulled out at half-time while trailing East Bengal by Harmanjot Khabra’s goal. That was after Mohun Bagan’s Syed Rahim Nabi was hit by a missile that came from where his team’s fans were sat. Had I-League rules been followed, Mohun Bagan would have been banned by the AIFF till 2015.
But the AIFF let off Mohun Bagan with a Rs 2 crore fine and after deducting all points accrued from the first phase of the I-League. No club before or after has faced such sanctions and yet many felt the punishment was lighter than the crime.
Suitably chastened, Mohun Bagan have not stepped out of line in tournaments conducted by the AIFF. With the Indian Football Association (IFA), which with a number of outdated rules runs the sport in Bengal, it is a different matter. Before this season’s Calcutta Football League’s Premier Division A started, Mohun Bagan had said they wouldn’t play the derby.
Possibly because of a severe funds crunch and with players loaned to ISL franchises, they didn’t build a strong squad for the local league preferring to concentrate on the national season beginning in January 2017.
Changing their mind
But after starting the Kolkata league brightly, they changed their mind. As their campaign stuttered, Mohun Bagan changed their mind again. Protesting at referees’ incompetence, Mohun Bagan fans led a pitch invasion forcing the match against Tollygunge Agragami to be abandoned at 1-1. Perhaps to humour them --- after all the derby was around the corner --- the IFA agreed to a full replay.
Mohun Bagan then requested that the derby be deferred so as to let them have at least two training sessions at the venue, the Kalyani Stadium, some 55km away from Kolkata. Mohun Bagan’s last letter, issued late on Tuesday and released to the media, was a climbdown of sorts, saying they would play if allowed only one session in keeping with Fifa regulations.
Mohun Bagan said they hadn’t trained in Kalyani earlier due to ‘uncertainty’ over the match. Uncertainty that was entirely of their making; first asking for a shift in the venue and then talking about procedural irregularities that would have made Kalyani an unsuitable venue. All charges of irregularities have been denied by the IFA.
Forced to relocate Indian football’s biggest match to Kalyani because of work at the Salt Lake stadium for the 2017 under-17 World Cup, Mohun Bagan’s refusal to play in Siliguri and the police objecting to the Mohun Bagan ground as a venue, the IFA didn’t budge. On Wednesday, after waiting for 30 minutes with only East Bengal on the pitch, referee Pranjan Banerjee awarded defending champions the match.
The formalities of East Bengal getting full points will be ratified at a meeting of the Calcutta Football League’s sub-committee. IFA general secretary Utpal Ganguli said a meeting would be called this week after receiving the match commissioner’s report.
Once that is done, East Bengal would have 24 points from eight games while Mohun Bagan stay on 16 from seven. With three matches to go, East Bengal, winners of the past six editions, are two points away from a seventh successive Kolkata league title. They can get there against Mohammedan Sporting on Saturday.
‘Bad advertisement for football’
“This is not good for football. We were mentally ready to play and not bothered by what happens outside the pitch. But, I repeat, this is a bad advertisement for football. You don’t want to be crowned champions like this. A player knows that each point in any league has to be earned. I can’t speak for Mohun Bagan players but as a footballer, I feel bad about this,” said East Bengal skipper and India central defender Arnab Mondal.
Time was when a high-profile Mohun Bagan official had reportedly once reacted to players not willing to replay a game had said: “If Mohun Bagan players don’t play, its ‘maalis’ (groundmen) will.”
Mohun Bagan’s current officials aren’t obviously on the same page but they have denied their young footballers an opportunity to be part of one of world football’s most enduring contests. To the image of a competition over 100 years old but struggling in the time of the I-League and the ISL, Mohun Bagan too dealt a body blow. This, indeed, is bad advertisement for football.