East Bengal, Mohun Bagan missing in action as Indian football team returns to Kolkata

The Indian football team returns to Kolkata after a nine-year gap and for the first time in a long time, there are no represents from East Bengal or Mohun Bagan.

The Indian football team trains at Kolkata's Salt Lake Stadium on the eve of its FIFA World Asian Qualifier match against Bangladesh, scheduled for Tuesday.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

Kolkata doesn’t need any publicity or gimmicks to promote football.

Upon landing in Kolkata, Sunil Chhetri asked one of the national team’s media manager if he needed to put out a video message on social media asking fans to turn up to cheer on the boys against Bangladesh in the World Cup qualifiers. To which he learnt that the tickets have already been sold out. All 65,000 of them. A record number for an Indian international match in nearly 15 years.

Chhetri’s coach Igor Stimac has often referred to the city as the ‘Mecca of Indian football’ in the lead up to the game. Many great superstars, both club and country, have come from these parts for over more than a century.

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However, in the years gone by, while the passion has remained, the disconnect between Kolkata and the national team is tangible, which previously used to be bridged by Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. It’s been nine years since the national team last played in the venue when it beat Malaysia 3-2 in a friendly under Savio Medeira. Much has changed since then.

The makeup of the 16 members which took the field on that night on November 16 tells a story in itself. All 16 players came from the then top division league in the country, I-League, and had five representatives from both the Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Another three remained on the bench. From the current squad which will take on Bangladesh, only defenders Pritam Kotal and Balwant Singh play for a Kolkata-outfit.

Lucrative offers and better playing conditions from the newly contrived Indian Super League (ISL) has seen the players make the switch from the I-League. Despite being the grandest institutions in Indian football, financial struggles within the Kolkata’s ‘big two’ have negated their legacy pull of over 100 years.

Arnab Mondal, a former East Bengal captain, told this publication last year in April, “ISL is what the coaches look at. The way I-League was organised this season (2017-18), it has never happened before. The pitches were of poor quality at some stadiums, we had 2 pm kick-offs. Imagine playing at 2 pm in Kerala’s heat. Players also feel that ISL offers better facilities. And, as a player, if you are getting a better offer, you take it."

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Mondal moved to the ISL with ATK two months later and made four appearances last season. Other key East Bengal players Cavin Lobo, Nikhil Poojari, Gurwinder Singh, Mohammed Rafique and Jobby Justin have left the club for the ISL since then.

In the same period, Mohun Bagan players Debarata Roy, Ricky Lallawmawma, Sourav Das, Rana Gharami, Surchandra Singh, Nikhil Kadam, Raynier Fernandes, Sibinraj Kunniyil, Sheikh Faiz, Amey Ranawade and Darren Caldeira have joined the exodus from the I-League.

Stimac has made it clear the door isn’t closed on any player and will be personally scouting players from the ISL. “I have some 40 players on my sheet. I am monitoring them. But the door is never closed for others. The ISL starts on October 20 and I am going to watch all the players. Our goal is not just these qualifiers. We have 2026 (World Cup) in mind," he said.

With the new road map for club football in the horizon with ISL at its crux, one wonders if Bagan and East Bengal can once again appear to the forerunners of Indian football.

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