After a month of hectic action in the Hero I-League, both Kolkata teams, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, are at the top of the table for the first time since 2001. East Bengal is the leader with 19 points from seven matches that include six victories on the trot.
It is for the first time since 2010-11 that East Bengal is in pole position in the I-League. Bagan, which has played one match less, is second with 16 points (at the time of writing). Bagan won its first four matches, but was held to a goalless draw by DSK Shivajians, the most improved team in the I-League. The Pune-based team has held both Bagan and Bengaluru FC to draws.
Manager Trevor Morgan, an Englishman who is now a naturalised Australian citizen, is working wonders again with East Bengal in his second stint. He was with East Bengal from 2010-2013 during which he helped the team win the Federation Cup (2010 and 2012) and the Super Cup (2011). Morgan believes in one-touch approach play and quick transition from defence to attack. He has once again got a group of players that is easily adapting to his coaching philosophy.
During his first season with East Bengal, Morgan had the magical trio of Penn Orji, Tolgay Ozbey and newly recruited Robin Singh, who relied on pace and quick attacks. They won six matches in a row at the start of the 2010-11 I-League.
In his second stint, Morgan has revitalised the club. His attacking trio this time consists of Robin and Willis Deon Plaza (Trinidad and Tobago international) and playmaker Wedson Anselme (Haiti). Skipper Lalrindika Ralte has also returned to peak form after an injury lay-off, and his measured cross-field and chipped passes initiate many attacks.
The burly 25-year-old Ivan Bukenya (Uganda) marshals the defence expertly, just as Uga Okpara (Nigeria) did in 2010. With these five players in sparkling form, East Bengal is the frontrunner and early favourite to win the I-League for the first time since 2003-04.
The telepathic understanding and slick combination between Plaza, 29, and Anselme, 30, is awesome. It is reminiscent of the brilliant passing and inter-changes between the brothers, Habib and Akbar, in the early 1970s; between the brilliant Iranians, Majid Bashkar and Jamshed Nasiri, in 1980-81, and for one season between Baichung Bhutia and the late Cristiano Junior in 2003-04. Plaza and Anselme have accounted for 10 of the 17 goals that East Bengal has scored so far, and the team could struggle to score if either of them misses a match due to suspension or injury.
The crowd response has been on predictable lines. The turnout for the home matches of the newly introduced Chennai City FC and Minerva Punjab FC and the recalled Churchill Brothers have been disappointing. DSK Shivajians and Mumbai FC also have only committed fans coming to their home games. However, the biggest surprise has been the relatively poor turnout for Mohun Bagan’s home matches at the Rabindra Sarovar Stadium in Kolkata. Despite having a capacity of only 15,000, Bagan’s fans have not filled this relatively small stadium even once during the team’s three home matches so far. This is a mystery, as Bagan is in the reckoning for the title and has an attractive and lethal attack. Besides, the ticket prices are also cheap (Rs. 50 for members and Rs. 100 for the public).
In contrast, East Bengal’s fans have filled the Vidyasagar Krirangan (Barasat Stadium) to its capacity (15,000) in each of the team’s four home matches. Remarkably, even when India was playing England in a limited-overs match at the Eden Gardens on January 22, the Barasat Stadium was packed for the East Bengal versus Bengaluru FC game. The Bengaluru FC owner Parth Jindal, in a tweet, lauded the passion of the Kolkata fans.
The teams from North-East have consistently drawn good crowds for their home matches. Despite the cold weather, the fans throng the stadium for Shillong Lajong’s home matches. But Aizawl FC has been a revelation. The tickets for its home matches are worth Rs. 200, 500 and 1,000 — well above the average cost at the other nine venues of the I-League. Yet they sell like hot cakes. For the North-East derby against Shillong Lajong, all the tickets worth Rs. 200 were sold off in just an hour. Tickets of Rs. 500 denomination were also sold off some hours later.
With songs, banners, musical instruments and cheer leaders, the Mizoram supporters created a Premiership kind of atmosphere during Aizawl FC’s three home games this season. The Rajiv Gandhi Stadium on the outskirts of Aizawl, in a valley surrounded by lush greenery and mountains, is the most picturesque in the country. Sadly, the capacity of the stadium is only 10,000. So, enthusiastic fans are seen perched on nearby trees to get a glimpse of the action and their heroes.
Chennai City FC was expected to attract substantial crowds, as the city’s ISL franchise, Chennaiyan FC, regularly attracted 20,000-25,000 fans when they played at home. But the attendance at Chennai City FC’s home matches has so far been meagre. Against Mohun Bagan there were more supporters of the Kolkata team than of Chennai City. The Mariner fan clubs (Mohun Bagan supporters are known by that name) from Bengaluru and Mumbai had travelled to Chennai to cheer their team and outnumbered the home team’s fans.
The CEO of Minerva Punjab FC, Ranjit Bajaj, has managed to attract some college students to his team’s home matches at the Guru Nanak Stadium in Ludhiana. However, the ground conditions have been atrocious, especially after the rain during the Republic Day week. When Minerva played East Bengal in its first home match on January 29, the ground resembled a slushy field on which even buffalos would fear to tread. This stadium recently has regularly been used for kabaddi and other social events, so the surface is not fit for football.
The I-League committee should have inspected the home venue of each team before allowing it to stage matches. Even the Nehru Stadium in Chennai has lots of brown patches. Poor quality surfaces mar the game as a spectacle on television and even lead to mediocre crowd response.
Another area that needs improvement is marketing. In this regard the ISL clubs, with the support of the assigned public relations firm, Perfect Relations, are far superior. They use social media, hoardings and others forms of publicity to attract the crowds and make each match a success. With better marketing more crowds would come to I-League matches that are now often being held at a convenient time of 7 pm. At present, only East Bengal and Aizawl FC — because of their traditional and passionate supporters — are getting maximum crowds.
Minerva FC deserves credit for fielding several Under-22 players in its first team. Minerva notched up its first victory on February 4, beating Mumbai FC 2-1. Both the goals were scored by precocious teenagers, Baoringdao Bodo (at 17 years, the youngest ever goal scorer in the I-League history) and Man of the Match Anirudh Thapa.
The best match so far this season has been East Bengal’s come-from-behind win over Bengaluru FC. It was a fast paced, exciting match with end-to-end action. Morgan’s tactics won the day for East Bengal. In the second half he exposed the slowness of the Bengaluru FC defenders, John Johnson and Juan Antonio Gonzalez, on the turn by getting his midfielders to play quick through balls to utilize Plaza’s sudden acceleration and Robin Singh’s bustling tactics. East Bengal rallied to win 2-1 — its first victory over the reigning champion since January 28, 2015.
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