Footballers accused of raping a minor girl, the Tolgay Ozbey transfer saga playing out like some vapid soap opera and megabuck teams seemingly imploding under the weight of their contradictions; the story of Kolkata football was grimmer than most fairy tales going into December 2012.
Then Mohun Bagan, whose players once made a team of British soldiers blink, fled the field. Pending the hearing of their appeal on January 15, they stand banned from the I-League and the Federation Cup till 2015-16.
So much for action off the field. On it, United SC are fifth having upset Dempo on Friday, East Bengal fourth and Pailan Arrows seventh.
Off the ball
No Kolkata team has won the I-League or its predecessor, the National Football League, since East Bengal in 2003-04.
And both Mohun Bagan and United SC, two of India’s most expensive teams with rosters worth around R 12-14 crore, floundered in this first round of the Federation Cup this season. All this while, Mohammedan Sporting continue to slip from national consciousness even as their officials further political careers.
“Judging by performance alone, Kolkata cubs are not progressing and serious introspection must be done for the development of Bengal football. Otherwise we will end up like Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh,” said Subrata Dutta, senior vice-president of the All Indian Football Federation.
To that Shaji Prabhakaran, Fifa Development Officer South-east Asia, added from New Delhi: “Bengal and India’s most famous clubs have not really changed with time. It is still difficult to match their popularity quotient but they would have continued to be leaders in Indian football if their management struck a balance between being passionate and professional.
“Such as Pune FC who take football-team related decisions in consultation with the coach.”
Unbeaten in the last eight rounds, Pune FC are now third in the 14-team league.
Surprisingly, it was officials at rival clubs who spoke in defence of Kolkata. Chirag Tanna, chairman Pune FC, attributed their failure to win the I-League to focu-sing on “too many tournaments.”
“You always have to play your best team and you always have to win, you are always under pressure and that is where it becomes difficult,” he said, speaking over the phone from Mumbai.
If Kolkata clubs focus on buying talent, for Pune FC, he said, the stress is on developing them. “When our academy was set up (in 2011 with under-19 boys), I wanted it to be a feeder line for the first team. Salgaocar and Sporting Clube too have done well on that front.” This year, Pune FC will start recruiting under-17 boys too for its academy, he said.
Pointing out that three of the teams with the highest budgets (Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and United SC) are from here, Bhaichung Bhutia too didn’t agree that Kolkata clubs don’t matter anymore. What bothers the United Sikkim co-owner instead is that that only Kolkata and Goa remain relevant in Indian football.
“That’s why it is important for clubs such as United Sikkim, Shillong Lajong and Pune FC stay in the I-League,” he said.
By focusing on continuity like Pune FC and Dempo, East Bengal have managed to speak for Kolkata having won the Federation Cup and being in the I-League leaderboard but for a city that’s still crazy about football, it doesn’t seem good enough.