East Bengal’s hat-trick

The triumphant East Bengal team.-

Amitabha Das Sharma takes a look at the problems facing a hoary league.

The progenitor of competitive football leagues in India — the 114-year-old Calcutta Football League — finds itself in a curious bind as the more glamorous national tournaments threaten to end its existence. The CFL, arguably the oldest league in the continent and one of the oldest in the world, has seven divisions and around 200 teams in contention. When East Bengal accomplished a hat-trick of titles while extending the record of winning the title for the 34th time on May 23, the celebrations were slightly dampened by the pangs that the tournament suffered in ensuring its completion.

Set as a precursor to the national tournaments like the I-League or the Federation Cup in the football calendar, the CFL is fast losing its pre-eminence as the very teams that contributed to its significance are turning away in search of greater glory in the national format. The Indian Football Association — the governing body of football in Bengal — has repeatedly altered the format of the tournament but that has hardly yielded the desired effect. In a departure from the usual two tier round-robin format, the IFA had been regularly breaking up the sequence to make it easier for the clubs playing the top tier of the I-League — like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan or Prayag United SC. The efforts to bring in the innovation have in effect damaged the rhythm of the tournament prompting many of the participating clubs to openly criticise the state body.

The task is also getting difficult for the IFA which has to ensure the full participation of the bigwigs like East Bengal or Mohun Bagan as the two sides have the biggest share of the fan base and the sponsors’ interest. Faced with such a situation the state body has to bring in postponements whenever the big teams’ fixtures come in conflict with the I-league itinerary.

The league this season was played in three stages. In the first stage the tournament divided the initial 19 teams into two groups, from where the best nine teams (five from Group A and four from Group B) played another round robin-league to decide the title. The teams in the bottom half of each group played another league to decide relegation.

The first stage began on August 8, 2012 and the title was decided on May 23, 2013.

The nearly 10-month span saw big periods of lull as the IFA struggled to put together a ‘workable’ itinerary to finish the tournament within a desirable time-frame. With the National federation — the AIFF — suggesting that the local leagues be transformed into a nursery for age-group players, the IFA is refusing to let its prized possession be transformed into a youth tournament. There are the non-I League clubs which are supporting the state body in this cause. With the AIFF deciding to limit the use of foreigners in a team to two from the new season, the IFA may find a workable solution as the big teams will be forced to use their spare players — from their squad of 30 which from now on will have five under-23 players — to form their teams for the CFL.

Mohun Bagan had to be satisfied with the runner-up position as it lost the last league match 2-3 against East Bengal, which lifted the crown winning all its eight matches in the super-nine stage. This was a great moment for East Bengal’s English coach Trevor Morgan, who had helped the team win the CFL title in all the three seasons he had trained the side. This title incidentally was the icing on Morgan’s coaching tenure as he has decided not to continue with the red-and-gold brigade.