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Friday, Nov 22, 2019

East Bengal’s 100 years of spunk

One of India’s most historic football clubs celebrates its centenary year. What does it mean to be a fan of the club? And what does the future hold for them?

football Updated: Sep 29, 2019 12:53 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
With torches, festoons and tifos, East Bengal supporters light up the club ground.
With torches, festoons and tifos, East Bengal supporters light up the club ground. (East bengal/twitter)
         

Leslie Claudius Sarani is teeming with a throng that is overwhelmingly male. Many are in red-and-yellow shirts, the colours of their football club moored near the end of the road named after the late hockey legend who won three Olympic gold and one silver.

Two days after celebrating their 100th birthday, East Bengal are about to start in the 129th edition of the Durand Cup; but what has added zing to the excitement of another new season is the fact that Mohun Bagan, Indian football’s significant other, who are less than a kilometre away, have lost their opening game in the local league earlier in the week.

In a yellow sari—it’s either that or one in red-and-yellow because she says she can’t wear any other colour—and with a bulging cloth bag slung across her shoulders, Jamuna Das shuffles through the crowd, selling hard candy. For her, East Bengal is business and pleasure, a combination that kicked off in 1993. Unless you ask for the peppery black ones, the stuff she vends in transparent plastic sachets is in red and yellow.

The Kolkata derby still attracts the biggest crowd in India. In picture, East Bengal’s Willis Deon Plaza (left) during the 2017 I-League derby in Siliguri
The Kolkata derby still attracts the biggest crowd in India. In picture, East Bengal’s Willis Deon Plaza (left) during the 2017 I-League derby in Siliguri

“When East Bengal win, my earnings multiply,” says Das, 55. Lozenges Didi’, which is what everyone calls her (lozenge is the colloquial term for candy in Bengal) then gets payouts from players, club officials, supporters and even journalists.

East Bengal duly beat Army Red 2-0 but this Saturday, the third of August, feels different for Das: it is her first game since her husband suddenly passed away on July 13.

“My world revolved around him and East Bengal. Now, all I have is East Bengal,” says Das.

In this difficult time, Das isn’t walking alone.

“Someone posted it on Facebook and people chipped in from Kolkata and beyond,” she says.

A group of East Bengal supporters near her home in Agarpara, some 20km from downtown Kolkata, helped her complete the after-death rituals. Another got her mobile repaired.

“Bhaichung (Bhutia) told me ‘now that your brother is here, what do you have to worry about,’” she says. She managed to seek out Bhutia, a former India captain and East Bengal’s most famous player over the past 25 years, among the 60,000 who walked at a rally on July 28 to mark the start of the club’s centennial celebrations.

Being an East Bengal supporter was never a matter of choice for Das.

“My father left Faridpur (in Bangladesh), when he was 13. And I married into a family that was originally from Dhaka,” she says.

THE OTHER

Saron Dutta’s family had no connection with ‘Purba Bangla’ (eastern Bengal, now Bangladesh) but he too bleeds red-and-yellow. “So did my father. The colours have attractive powers, I guess. How else can you explain East Bengal having so many supporters whose families have no roots in that part of Bengal? And that aggression of fans, the must-win mentality drew me as a child,” says Dutta, lead researcher of a documentary on the club being helmed by the acclaimed director Goutam Ghose.

Buses and trucks crammed with slogan chanting fans, the derby day commute to Salt Lake stadium is an experience by itself. For Jamuna Das (R), maidan football’s ‘Lozenges Didi’, being an East Bengal supporter was never a matter of choice
Buses and trucks crammed with slogan chanting fans, the derby day commute to Salt Lake stadium is an experience by itself. For Jamuna Das (R), maidan football’s ‘Lozenges Didi’, being an East Bengal supporter was never a matter of choice ( aiff & ht )

Being aggressive and having a desire to prove naysayers wrong are leitmotivs that run through East Bengal, a club whose emblem is the ‘mashal’ or torch.

“Spordhar Sotoborsho,”—“a centenary of spunk” is the tagline of the club’s celebrations.

“Even before Partition, people in Kolkata tended to look down upon those from Purba Bangla,” says Dutta. Calcutta was till 1911 the capital and said to be the finest city in the Empire outside London. For many Calcuttans that was reason enough to mock those from eastern Bengal. They conveniently ignored the fact that a number of players in the 1911 Mohun Bagan team that became the first Indian side to win the IFA Shield were from eastern Bengal.

It was from a feeling of being othered that East Bengal were birthed. On July 28, 1920, when Jorabagan Club dropped two players from the team against Mohun Bagan, ostensibly because they were from eastern Bengal, its official Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri decided to start a club which would not treat players from his part of Bengal as pariahs.

Along with friends including the Maharaja of Santosh (after whom the Santosh Trophy is named) Manmatha Nath Chaudhuri, he formed East Bengal on August 1, 1920.

A year later, the club began playing in the second division in Kolkata. So when four years later, having qualified to the first division, East Bengal beat Mohun Bagan 1-0 in the first match between the teams on May 28, 1925, it sparked a pitch invasion and started a rivalry that would pass the test of time despite violent clashes between fans, including ones that led to fatalities.

On July 13, 1997, 1.31 lakh people watched Bhutia score a hattrick as East Bengal destroyed Mohun Bagan 4-1 at the Salt Lake stadium.

Like with many chapters in East Bengal’s history, that match was about the triumph of the underdogs because Mohun Bagan, using a diamond formation, had cruised into the Federation Cup semi-finals. This can-do spirit helped East Bengal become the first team to win the Calcutta League six times in a row from 1970, a record they bettered to eight from 2010-17.

That isn’t all. In 1971, East Bengal beat Iran’s famous Pas Club 1-0 to become the first in independent India to beat a foreign side and win the IFA Shield.

“I think that is East Bengal’s greatest moment. That gave us a platform to believe. The ASEAN Cup was the next step,” says Debabrata Sarkar, member of the club’s executive committee.

In 2003, East Bengal again proved to be greater than the sum of their parts when they beat BEC Tero Sasana (now Police Tero FC) 3-1 to win the ASEAN Cup, an invitation tournament, in Jakarta. BEC Tero Sasana played the final of the Asian Champions League, the continent’s biggest competition, later that year.

The biggest margin of defeat in a Kolkata derby too is with East Bengal because they beat Mohun Bagan 5-0 in the 1975 IFA Shield final. The next day, club officials made Bhaskar Ganguly, then a rookie in Mohun Bagan’s goal, rethink on giving up on football.

“I retired 27 years ago but even now I am recognised and it’s because of East Bengal,” said Ganguly, a former India captain.

PIONEERS

Partition led to East Bengal being a totem for a displaced people. East Bengal won 21 trophies between 1940 and 1960 and in Ahmed Khan (1952), J Kittu (1956) and Tulsidas Balaram (1960) had players who scored in the Olympics.

In 1951-52, the English FA said East Bengal were India’s best club. In 1953, they were the first Indian football club to tour Europe. “Colonies in Kolkata where people were rehabilitated almost always have more East Bengal supporters,” says Dutta.

Many uprooted from Bangladesh metaphorically connected with their roots through East Bengal.

“The documentary will try to capture the spirit of the people who identify with the club,” says Dutta.

“When East Bengal played in New Delhi in the 1960s, high-ranking bureaucrats were regulars. Amartya Sen, who was teaching at the Delhi School of Economics, too would be seen,” says Gautam Roy, a retired corporate executive and football statistician who grew up in New Delhi but lives in Kolkata.

The Bombay film industry too was redolent with stories of how music maestro S D Burman, an East Bengal diehard, and playback singer Manna Dey, whose club was Mohun Bagan, would leave for a Kolkata derby together but return separately. “He (SD) was known to have never missed any game at the Cooperage stadium (in Mumbai), especially if East Bengal was playing,” writes Aniruddha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal in ‘S.D. Burman The Prince Musician’.

The Burmans, father and son RD, were life members at East Bengal Club. An apocryphal story in the book has SD Burman opening his eyes in a hospital momentarily after his son told him about the 5-0 rout of Mohun Bagan.

But is East Bengal relevant in the time of top quality club football from Europe on television? Or with the I-League, where the club plays, now playing second fiddle to the Indian Super League (ISL), which is televised and promoted with far more enthusiasm?

IDENTITY

Don’t even ask Arin Paul that. For Paul, 10, a student in the fifth standard, East Bengal is the only club that matters. It started with him joining the club’s football training school this year.

That Paul’s brother is a Mohun Bagan supporter—as are most relatives on his father’s side— complicates things at home but that is not his problem. Time has blunted the divide between ‘Ghoti’ (those from West Bengal) and ‘Bangal’ (from places now in Bangladesh). Everyone in Paul’s mother’s side are East Bengal supporters.

But the hard truth is that both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, two of the oldest extant football clubs in Asia, and for long India’s two powerhouses, have been struggling to impose themselves for years now.

100 year old East Bengal club supporters celebrate during a derby match against Mohun Bagan at Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata, India, on Sunday, September 1, 2019.
100 year old East Bengal club supporters celebrate during a derby match against Mohun Bagan at Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata, India, on Sunday, September 1, 2019. ( Samir Jana/HT Photo )

Held in Kolkata for the first time, the Durand Cup went to Gokulam Kerala FC.

“These days, it is only about beating the other team (Mohun Bagan). It is not so much an identity of a displaced people,” says Roy.

Dutta counters, “How do you explain 15,000 going to an I-League game on a weekday afternoon? How do you explain the Kolkata derby being sold out? The ‘Bangal’ (those with origins in Bangladesh) identity exists.”

It will be hard work keeping that identity alive through East Bengal, says Sarkar. “While I have nothing but respect for those who got us this far, I wish they looked beyond beating Mohun Bagan and celebrating with ‘Ilish’ (Hilsa). Maybe it was because they have always had to fight for survival.

“It was only in the 1990s that East Bengal realised that asking wealthy patrons to donate to build a competitive first team won’t do. It was in 1993 that we first got a team sponsor but even then we were ahead in the game,” says Sarkar.

Dipak (Paltu) Das initiated a change in mindset, says Sarkar referring to the official who was a club goalkeeper before rising to be its general secretary. From the 1980s to his death in 2001, Das was the club’s most influential voice.

So even as he refuses to abandon plans for a museum for which space has been allocated in the club premises, Sarkar talks about plans to set up a coffee chain in West Bengal’s districts using the club as a brand and explore other business opportunities.

“We want to set up pay-and-play schemes in the districts. That will help us get new fans, connect with ones who can’t come to Kolkata regularly and eventually get players for our youth and senior teams.”

East Bengal run a football school at the club where former captains Alvito d’Cunha, Falguni Dutta, and Chandan Das are involved.

“It started with 35 boys. We have 130 now and have to turn away many,” says Sarkar.

Visit their training and you will find Paul. “The coaches are nice and I am learning a lot of new things. I enjoy sessions so much that I don’t want to miss a single day,” he says.

“THE SOUL DOESN’T DIE”

While the club will stay on the Maidan, the large green swathe in the centre of Kolkata that’s controlled by the Army, Sarkar says East Bengal have approached the state government for land to build a training centre, apartments for players and recreational facilities for members.

Since July 2018, East Bengal’s football team has Quess Corp, a business service provider, as majority shareholders. But the relationship between the club and Quess is fractious and there have been reports that the company will pull out at the end of this season.

A frosty relationship with those bankrolling the football team and not playing the ISL, which, according to the All India Football Federation (AIFF), will be India’s top league this term, means uncertain times ahead.

But what is certain is that because of their supporters and members, East Bengal—and Mohun Bagan—won’t, like many clubs in recent times, wind up.

“In 37 years that I was away, a lot has changed in Kolkata. But what hasn’t is the passion around the colours red and yellow,” says Iranian Majid Beshkar, who scored over 60 goals—including a hattrick—in a Rovers Cup final against Mohun Bagan.

Beshkar, who was in the 1978 World Cup squad but did not play, had touched down in Kolkata in August to be a part of the club’s centenary celebrations.

“If I have children and they play football, I will tell them to come and play for a while at East Bengal,” says former central defender Suley Musah, the Ghanaian who was captain during the club’s ASEAN Cup win.

Moroccan Karim Bencherifa coached different clubs in India including Mohun Bagan from 2006 to 2015. “East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting are like the Taj Mahal of football in India; institutions that have a soul. And the soul doesn’t die,” he says over the phone from Morocco.

Jamuna Das would agree.