Storied derby set for Spanish firsts and a Bagan last
It will be the first time Mohun Bagan play East Bengal after announcing a merger with ATK. And the last time 130-year-old Mohun Bagan host East Bengal as a standalone entity. From June 1, 2020, Mohun Bagan will become ATK-Mohun Bagan and play in the Indian Super League.Updated: Jan 18, 2020 19:47 IST
Sunday’s Kolkata derby, unarguably the most followed match in Indian club football, is the first of one and the last of another.
It will be the first time Mohun Bagan play East Bengal after announcing a merger with ATK. And the last time 130-year-old Mohun Bagan host East Bengal as a standalone entity. From June 1, 2020, Mohun Bagan will become ATK-Mohun Bagan and play in the Indian Super League.
This match in the 2019-20 I-League will be another chapter in a 95-year-old football rivalry, one where it may not matter that it is being played between teams first and sixth in the standings. East Bengal, who may give new signings defender Abhas Thapa and midfielder Edmund Lalrindika game time on Sunday, lost to Churchill Brothers and Gokulam Kerala FC in their last two rounds. On eight points from six games, they have also struggled with injuries.
None of that will matter, said Lalrindika Ralte. “In 2016, we were in top form and expected to beat Mohun Bagan easily. The match was drawn. All derbies are 50-50,” said the East Bengal midfielder. “Every derby has a special dynamic,” said Mohun Bagan coach Kibu Vicuna.
Sunday’s match will also be the first time in the I-League that Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have seven Spaniards available for selection. Mohun Bagan have three --- some shift for a club that till striker Chima Okorie joined in 1991 sneered at the idea of foreign players. East Bengal have four. Both teams have Spanish coaches, another first in the I-League for them.
Had the match been held on December 22, as was scheduled, there could have been three more Spaniards. Since then, East Bengal’s defensive lynchpin Borja Gomez has gone home to be with his son who is ill. And Mohun Bagan have released Salva Chamorro and Julen Colinas. They have singed strikers Baba Diwara, who played for Levante and Sevilla, and attacking player Komron Tursunov in the January window.
“We have a good connection professionally and personally,” said Vicuna after talking to Alejandro Menendez Garcia, his counterpart at East Bengal, and Josep Ferre, East Bengal’s assistant coach on Saturday.
“The players know each better. Some have families here and their children play together,” said Vicuna.
Joseba Beitia is one the Spanish players who could be the cynosure on Sunday. Beitia is the heart and soul of league leaders (14 points from seven games) Mohun Bagan’s attack and scored away to Real Kashmir.
“He is part of a generation of good players at Real Sociedad, one that produced Antoine Griezmann. He is known in the Spanish second division,” said Vicuna.
Beitia was at Real Sociedad for nine years playing 92 games and scoring 69 goals for the B team. “I joined when I was 15. It was a superb experience,” said Beitia in an interview to this paper.
Beitia speaks softly, often pausing to search for the right word in English. “My contract with Real Union (one of founders of La Liga who play in the second division now) had ended. I wanted to experience football in a different culture. Kibu called and here I am,” said Beitia, 29, who has played 260 games in Spain from 2010.
“Football in India is a lot more physical than in Spain and I had to adapt. The grounds too are not of the same standard but it is the same for all players. I understand this is a massive game for supporters. For me, the next match is always the most important.”
Beitia is a Lionel Messi fan. “The thing about him is that even though he is the best at whatever he does --- scoring, passing, dribbling --- he is always improving,” he said.
“I know we are in good rhythm now but you can always get better.”
For Beitia, forging friendships is the biggest takeaway from football. “I am privileged that way. Asier Illaramandi (Real Sociedad’s defensive midfielder and captain) is my best friend. We know each other since we were boys,” said Beitia.
Beitia played with East Bengal’s midfielder Juan Mera at Racing Ferrol in 2017-18. He said he knew East Bengal’s Spanish contingent well. “We stay in the same place. We have rivalry on pitch but outside we are friends. Many of my friends in Spain are saying they are keen on India. In future more Spanish players will come.”
With ATK too having a strong Spanish flavour ---- four in the support staff and five in the players’ roster --- Kolkata football’s tryst with Spain is likely to continue.