The East Bengal flag flies high

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

KINGFISHER East Bengal blew away the last resistance - Mohammedan Sporting, which forced a final play-off - and bagged the Calcutta Football League title for a record 28th time in the long history of the tournament. In a welcome development, Mohammedan Sporting emerged from a prolonged hibernation and in keeping with its glorious past gained the second spot ahead of the defending champion Mohun Bagan, which failed miserably in its pursuit to retain the title.

East Bengal, the Calcutta Football League champion.-S. PATRONOBISH

In the end the tournament - increasingly getting hackneyed over the last decade with the title restricted to one of the two glamour teams of the city - presented a fresh picture with Sporting confirming its status as the third big force in the game's hierarchy. If the city has the distinction of being India's footballing hub for over a century, it certainly is due to its big clubs and their pre-eminence in the country's soccer field. The sport draws its appeal chiefly by acting as the vent to the aspirations of the different ethnic and communal sections in the city's cosmopolitan population.

The rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal broadly stemmed from the rivalry between the two parts of Bengal -} West and East respectively - while coming to Mohammedan Sporting's clash with the other two, the spark was provided by one community's desire to surpass the other. Though time has withered the bitterness, bringing about an apparent harmony in the social order, the sport remains the only arena for the people to bare their latent differences through the teams that represent the cultural and racial divides. Above all, the city is united in its love for the game despite the standard being a far cry compared to the more developed parts of the world. Football in the city can draw a parallel to the best at least on one count - the passion and fanaticism of the supporters.

Mohammedan Sporting's ascension to prominence seemed to reignite the three-pronged rivalry that once dominated the 'Maidan' (a vast expanse in the heart of the city that is also the hub of sporting activities housing hundreds of clubs). Mohammad Habib, the great centre-forward who was the rage of the 'Maidan' in the '70s playing for all the three big clubs in turns, re-engineered Sporting's revival as a coach. Having served at the helm of coaching in the country's best soccer academy - Tata Football Academy (TFA) - Habib was the right person for the job as he prevailed over the club's new administration in selecting the team of his choice.

While the likes of Tollygunge Agragami and Bhratri Sangha - the two teams which failed in their turns to effectively challenge the prowess of the 'big two' with brief reigns as the third - on the wane, Sporting effectively came in to fill the apparent void. Primarily comprising of big club rejects and a few fresh talents from the TFA, Sporting renewed its title pursuit in right earnest. It seemed pertinent that the team which once created a record, winning the title on five consecutive occasions between 1934 and 1938 (before East Bengal overhauled it in 1970-75), should be making a comeback. The last time Sporting won the League title was in 1982 and it was almost out of the reckoning by the time the Super Division was introduced in 1990.

Beginning the fresh season, Sporting gave an express start to its aspirations and cruised at the top of the league table remaining undefeated in the first eight matches (in a 10-team round-robin league) till it met the eventual champion East Bengal in the last round.

Despite the great success of the last season that saw Mohun Bagan monopolise almost all the titles of the country including the CFL Super Division, Federation Cup and the National Football League, the defending champion failed miserably and fell by the wayside losing to modest Kolkata Port Trust (KPT) in the third match. The team, having won the title on 25 occasions, could hardly ever recover leaving East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting to fight it out for the title.

East Bengal had a shaky start, the team stumbling in its very second outing - held 2-2 by a modest Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL). Though SAIL - plagued by inconsistency - went down the ladder to be relegated eventually, the match it played against East Bengal at the latter's home truly spoke of character and resolve.

One setback was big enough a lesson for East Bengal which hauled itself up for a series of wins - including really big ones like 5-0 against promotee Ever Ready, 5-1 against Eastern Railway and 4-1 against Tollygunge Agragami - and swept aside all to emerge the clear topper with 25 points after the conclusion of the first leg of the 10-team round robin.

Sporting - playing two goalless draws against Bagan and Agragami and losing 0-2 against East Bengal - justifiably finished second with 20 points, while Mohun Bagan was third for the first time in many years netting only 16 points. Apart from losing 1-2 against its archrival East Bengal, Mohun Bagan had the ignominy of going down against unheralded Kolkata Port Trust (KPT) 0-1 and also against Agragami 1-2.

Politics took centre-stage as factional squabbles reportedly plagued Bagan just at the start of the new season. In the process Bagan lost many of its key players like R. P. Singh, James Singh, Devjit Ghosh - all part of the team's valued midfield that contributed greatly in the team's triumphs last season - who left for other clubs. Compounding Bagan's woes was the lack of form of its star Brazilian striker, Jose Barreto, who could score just two goals in nine matches in the first leg. The other two forwards, Sheik Sanjiv and Sunil Chetri, were none the better. Coach Subrata Bhattacharya - with Mohun Bagan for the third consecutive season, did work out some revival strategy and the team made a turnaround in the championship leg - the second phase of the tournament where the top five teams of the first leg played for the title.

With Barreto regaining some of his old touch, Bagan almost erased the points deficit incurred in the first leg, winning the first three matches in the second phase. Bagan even avenged the first leg loss against East Bengal beating the latter 1-0 as the seasoned play-maker Basudev Mondal scored the all-important goal. But the defending champion fell at the last hurdle as it was held to yet another barren draw by Mohammedan Sporting. This led to Bagan's exit while giving Sporting a fresh chance to have a go at the title.

East Bengal, which appeared to be a sure bet for the title after the first leg, suddenly found itself in a crisis as it drew its first two games against Agragami and Sporting and lost the third against Bagan. Managing to win only against KPT, East Bengal cut a sorry figure netting only five points out of the possible 12 in the championship leg and finished on 30 points. With the tournament laws specifying a play-off if the top two teams in the league table remained separated by two or less points, Sporting (which totalled 28 points) earned a fresh chance to realise its title dreams.

All the charm of a clash seemed to disappear as the sport's local governing body - Indian Football Association - chose to schedule the single play-off match almost one and a half months after the last match of the league. East Bengal prevailed over Sporting 3-0 in the subdued play-off marred by violence. The Sporting supporters went on the rampage vandalising the stadium property and even attacked a few policemen as their team surrendered to the resolve of East Bengal.

Among the individual feats, East Bengal's Nigerian striker Mike Okoro became the highest scorer of the tournament with 12 goals, while the same team's TFA recruit and Indian under-20 forward, S. Malswamtluanga, emerged as the most promising player, combining the skills of a striker and the creativity of a play-maker. Agragami's Ashim Biswas, who incidentally was Malswamtluanga's colleague in the national side, was the other outstanding player to emerge. TFA contributed another talent in the form of Syed Rahim Nabi, who apart from being the topscorer for the team, became a key man in Sporting's rise to prominence.

The bottom five teams played the relegation round which saw SAIL and Food Corporation of India (FCI) getting demoted to the first division Group 'A'.

Championship final play-off: East Bengal bt Mohammedan Sporting 3-0.

Championship Round league: Mohun Bagan - 4-3-1-0-7-2-10, Mohammedan Sporting - 4-2-2-0-9-3-8, East Bengal - 4-1-2-1-8-6-5, Tollygunge Agragami - 4-1-1-2-5-11-4, KPT - 4-0-0-4-0-7-0.

Relegation play-off (double leg): 1. SAIL drew with Bhratri Sangha 1-1; Bhratri Sangha bt SAIL 5-4 (tie-breaker); 2. Ever Ready bt FCI 1-0; Ever Ready bt FCI 1-0. (FCI and SAIL are relegated to first division Group 'A').

Relegation round (league): Eastern Railway - 4-2-2-0-5-3-8, Ever Ready - 4-2-0-2-5-5-6, SAIL - 4-1-2-1-5-2-5, Bhratri Sangha - 4-1-1-2-3-7-4, FCI - 4-1-1-2-4-5-4.

First leg (round-robin league): East Bengal - 9-8-1-0-27-5-25, 2. Mohammedan Sporting - 9-6-2-1-12-4-20, 3. Mohun Bagan - 9-5-1-3-14-8-16, 4. KPT - 9-4-2-3-8-10-14, 5. Tollygunge Agragami - 9-3-4-2-11-8-13, 6. Eastern Railway - 9-2-3-4-8-12-9, 7. Ever Ready Association - 9-2-2-5-7-15-8, 8. Bhratri Sangha - 9-1-4-4-5-9-7, 9. SAIL - 9-1-4-4-5-11-7, 10. FCI - 9-1-0-8-6-19-3.

(For league table, read as under: Played, won, drawn, lost, goals in favour, goals against and points).