A century of toil, a century filled with heartbreaks and euphoria has forged an intimate bond between East Bengal and its faithful while enshrining its place in the annals of Indian football.
One of the most successful clubs in the continent, however, is in turmoil in its 100th year, with plans of star-studded centenary celebrations — that included a much-publicised pre-season game against Manchester United — put to rest because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the general uncertainty over the club’s future. While archrival Mohun Bagan has made the transition to the new big league of Indian football, East Bengal — still without a backer with deep pockets — is left looking for ways to stay relevant and make the step up.
Facing the biggest challenge since its birth, East Bengal will need to draw inspiration from its unique history to reinvent itself as it has on many occasions in the 100 years past.
The club was formed to give voice to the Bengali diaspora hailing from the other side of the River Padma during the peak of India’s freedom struggle in 1920. As the entire nation rose in unison to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for “non-cooperation” against the British rule, there was a demographical displacement and a resultant angst in the people travelling away from their native land. Books and literature available on East Bengal broached a divide based on the dialect and culture of the two regions of the same State situated on either side of the river. And this chasm has perpetuated one of the oldest football rivalries in the world.
As its inception lay in the reaction of the people looking to reinvent their bearings, East Bengal always was the rebellious scion to Mohun Bagan. The latter became the representative of the natives of the western part of Bengal, which merged with India after Independence. This formed the basis of the ideological clash. Older by a little over three decades, Mohun Bagan had the early advantage, but East Bengal rose rapidly on the grit of its players and supporters to be a competent challenger.
East Bengal won the first meeting between the two clubs in the Calcutta Football League on May 28, 1925. Mohun Bagan supporters, always extolling their team’s momentous IFA Shield victory in 1911, are now training their research on finding out meetings between the two prior to that period. The debate over which team is better resurfaces every time the two meet to revive the rivalry in the Kolkata Derby.
Similar to its sensational inception, East Bengal is said to have received its crest in equally dramatic fashion. “It was 1930 and East Bengal was assured of making it to the first division of the CFL (Calcutta Football League) after winning eight consecutive matches in the second division. The Indian Football Association, then the preserve of British rulers, decided to abandon the tournament. The growing political turmoil following the announcement of the Civil Disobedience Movement and later arrests of our national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu brought great unrest in Calcutta,” recounts Kushal Chakraborty, who has been chronicling East Bengal’s history.
“The IFA’s decision to abandon the CFL that season robbed East Bengal’s chances of making it to the first division. East Bengal supporters and club officials decided to march to the IFA office in protest. It was already dark. They decided to light torches, which, while lighting up their path, came to symbolise their protest. The club adopted a lighted torch as its emblem.”
East Bengal returned to the first division in 1932 and narrowly missed out to become the first Indian team to win the CFL. A positive result against British regimental side Durham Light Infantry would have brought it the crown, but East Bengal was held to a 3-3 draw. It played with a man short for a great part of the second half in the absence of the substitution rule as full-back Paritosh Majumdar left the field with an injury. East Bengal eventually won the title in 1942, but Mohammedan Sporting in 1934 had won the race to become the first Indian club to do so (and won it for five consecutive seasons). Despite the late start, East Bengal is the most successful team in the CFL with 39 titles.
East Bengal’s success can be essentially divided into two parts. The first 50 years brought in a sizeable amount of laurels, but the latter half of the century gave the club its true position in the pantheon of great football clubs in the continent. The 1940s were the decade of Fred Pugsley, the Anglo-Burmese refugee who fled Japanese bombings in 1942. He travelled hundreds of kilometres on foot through the treacherous terrains of north-eastern India to reach East Bengal, the only address he knew in India. East Bengal’s renowned secretary Jyotish Chandra Guha could not believe his eyes when he saw Pugsley standing at the club gate, battered and bruised, the arduous journey from Rangoon (now Yangon) taking its toll. Pugsley’s only request to Guha was to let him play for East Bengal. The East Bengal secretary was in a spot of bother. Guha knew Pugsley’s calibre as a player from the few trips that East Bengal had made to Burma before the war, but he could not draft him in because of an unwritten rule of not allowing Anglo-Indians to play for the club. Guha convinced his colleagues to make an exception. Pusgley took a couple of seasons to recuperate and hit true form in 1945 when East Bengal made the grand double, winning the CFL and IFA Shield.
Then followed the reign of the famous five strikers also known as the “Pancha Pandavas.” The teams, then, played a five-forward system and Guha went to southern India to find the lethal combination of attackers – Appa Rao, P. B. Saleh, Ahmed Khan, P. Venkatesh and K. P. Dhanraj. Appa Rao, hailing from Madras (now Chennai), was the first to arrive in 1941 and was joined in later years by Saleh (from Kottayam, Kerala), Ahmed Khan, Venkatesh and Dhanraj (all from Mysore). With the five showing outstanding combination and skills, East Bengal dominated Indian football between 1949 to 1953, winning 11 trophies – CFL titles in 1949, 1950 and 1952, and successive IFA Shield crowns in 1949, 1950 and 1951. It also won two Durand Cups (in 1951, 1952), two DCM trophies (in 1950, 1952) and one Rovers Cup (in 1949).
In the next 50 years, it won the CFL 31 times and got its name on the Shield on 19 occasions, signifying an upward trajectory in its quest for glory. By the late ’60s, East Bengal saw a change in guard in administration following the departure of Jyotish Guha, who was at the helm of the club’s administration for almost three decades.
The new administration was headed by a combination of educated elite, chiefly medical doctors, and prominent businessmen of the time, and in the following decade, East Bengal won six consecutive CFL titles and a host of all-India trophies. “That is definitely the golden period and stands out in the history of the club,” says Surajit Sengupta, one of the finest creative wingers to have played for East Bengal and India.
“East Bengal was not able to celebrate the record of winning its sixth CFL title in 1975 as the IFA was not officially declaring the winner owing to the result of a match that was contested in a court of law. It was such a dampener for the players and avid fans of East Bengal. Finally, the dispute was resolved and the IFA announced us the winner. This happened on the day when we were to play Mohun Bagan in the IFA Shield final. It was such big news for us that it provided us the impetus to outclass Mohun Bagan 5-0 and lift the IFA Shield,” recounts Sengupta. That IFA Shield victory margin still remains a record that East Bengal fans proudly flaunt. “There are not many clubs in the continent which have achieved as much as East Bengal. The early ’70s were a period of utter uncertainty in Bengal. With the education system in turmoil and joblessness at its peak, the disgruntled youth took solace in their favourite team’s success on the field,” says Sengupta about the time.
East Bengal continued its march through the 1980s, picking up trophies in almost every season, till it reached another big milestone in 1997, winning one of the most hyped derby encounters that was watched by around 130,000 spectators. The famed duel of words between the legendary P. K. Banerjee, who coached East Bengal, and the renowned Mohun Bagan coach Amal Dutta set a brilliant prelude to the Federation Cup semifinal that saw Bhaichung Bhutia revealing his genius by scoring the first hat-trick of the Kolkata Derby (East Bengal won the match 4-1).
East Bengal marched into the new millennium with renewed vigour and dominated the national scene winning three National Football League titles between 2001 and 2004. The best came in 2003-2004 season when it asserted its supremacy in the local, national and international arenas. With Bhutia continuing to pull its fortunes, East Bengal wrought a brilliant combination of Indian and foreign recruits under the stewardship of Subhash Bhowmick as coach. After winning the CFL, East Bengal went to Indonesia on an invitation to participate in the ASEAN Club Championship, which it won, beating Thailand champion BEC Tero Sasana 3-1 in the final in Jakarta on July 24, 2003. East Bengal concluded the season by retaining the NFL crown.
In recent years, it has been mostly about breaking its own CFL record (of six consecutive wins between 1970 and 1975) and replacing it with a new mark of eight consecutive titles from 2010 till 2017, but success at the national level has eluded the club.
With Mohun Bagan making the shift to the Indian Super League, East Bengal — in urgent need of new backers to navigate the choppy waters of a highly commercialised game — is hoping to draw on its legacy to reinvent and regroup to face the challenges. This story of despair is also the story of Indian football in recent years, where the All India Football Federation and its commercial partner Football Sports Development Ltd. have overlooked the traditional clubs and their fanbase to give prominence to the new franchisee league which has failed in its efforts to draw the football fans of the country.
The club has been in talks with multiple investors but the COVID-19 induced lockdown had slowed the process of formalising a tie up. The officials, however, are confident of finding a solution soon. "We are in talks with multiple parties and we are hopeful of bringing like-minded corporates on board. East Bengal will be part of the top tier of Indian football," senior club official Debabrata Sarkar said.
A reenergised East Bengal and the continuing drama of the Kolkata Derby will be good for Indian football. “The ISL needs East Bengal and vice versa. Today, La Liga cannot do without Barcelona and Real Madrid and the two clubs cannot do without the league,” Indian football legend Baichung Bhutia correctly says.
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