Calcutta Football League 2018: Mohun Bagan & East Bengal fans the only lifelines to the oldest tournament in Asia

Although the quality of football remains deplorable, the Kolkata Maidan faithfuls have leased a new life to the grand old league of the continent...

Muddy grounds, chock-a-block galleries, mounted police; these three frames formed the larger canvas called the Calcutta Football League (CFL) 2017. And in the peripheral white space, if any, one would find patches of footballing brilliance.

Last season of the CFL was unique in its own way as it witnessed unprecedented levels of attendance, although the quality of football continued to remain far below expected standards. The concrete ramps were crammed with people which forced Mohun Bagan authorities to even install a giant LED screen in front of the club tent at the insistence of fans who could not make their way into the gallery. 

This season the Indian Football Association (IFA), who oversee football in West Bengal, has preponed the match kick-off time to 4:30 PM, keeping in mind the plight of fans who travel from far-flung districts. 

"I used to reach home at 11 in the night. My village is around 8 km from the nearest railway station and most of the time I had to walk that distance as public transport stops plying around 9 p.m.," said an ardent Mohun Bagan fan who travels on every match-day from his remote village in Burdwan district, around 90 km from Kolkata. 

Even though arch-rivals East Bengal have shown unparalleled consistency in CFL in the last decade, winning it in their last eight outings, the young fan is buoyed by the presence of new signings like Henry Kisekka who impressed with Gokulam Kerala last season. 

"Every season is a new beginning. I will be present at the stadium in every match. The previous year they (East Bengal) won the league as they had scored six more goals than us. This time we have Henry Kisekka in attack. Things will change," said the hopeful teenager with a passing glance at his college-mate who happens to belong to the Red and Gold brigade. 

CFL Bagan

Mohun Bagan have fared well in their pre-season games and Kisekka seems to have got the scoring boots on, finding the net in almost all the matches barring one. I-League top-scorer Aser Dipanda Dicka will be his partner-in-crime but is set to miss the league-opener as he arrived from Cameroon only on Wednesday night. 

Midfield seems to be a weak-link for Sankarlal Chakraborty's side. Even if Ugandan midfielder Boban Zirintusa finally joins the squad, it is unlikely that he would make it to the starting XI as Kisekka, Dipanda and Eze Kingsley will be the three first-choice overseas players. That leaves Mehtab Hossain as the only experienced campaigner at the centre of the park who is likely to pair up with Shilton D'Silva. Eze Kingsley will marshall the four-man backline along with Amey Ranawade as the other centre-back. The trusted Arijit Bagui should slot in at his usual right back position. 

The Mariners will face a stern test against Pathachakra in their opening match, as the newly promoted side have roped in Dutch tactician Remco Boere to draw up their battle-plan. He has been provided with necessary firepower as the team management have signed Zimbabwean defender Victor Kamhuka, Croatian forward Anto Pejic and Japanese striker Futa Nakamura to pose a formidable challenge to the two giants. In pre-season, they held Mohammedan Sporting SC to a 0-0 draw and went to trump Subrata Bhattacharya-coached Bhowanipore FC.

Meanwhile, East Bengal will start their campaign a day earlier against Tollygunj Agragami at their home ground on Friday. It will be a mouth-watering clash as Subhash Bhowmick will engage in a tactical battle with long-time club mate Monoranjan Bhattacharya. 

"Just because Mona da is there in Tollygunj, we have to be careful. These small teams park the bus and play for a point. They are further aided by muddy pitches where the ball halts unexpectedly and the bounce is also uneven. Otherwise, East Bengal is in a completely different league when compared to all the other teams," says the Red and Gold fan taking a jibe at his fellow Mohun Bagan supporter. 

East Bengal fans

Boosted by a corporate investor in Quess, East Bengal have roped in Johnny Acosta who played the World Cup for Costa Rica. He is expected to join the team in the latter half of August. Midfield dynamo Mahmoud Al-Amna will shoulder the responsibility of infusing creative imagination in midfield whereas Kassim Aidara will look to destroy opposition attacks in midfield. But a lack of prolific striker can complicate matters for Bhowmick as Gagandeep Bali remains the only viable option after Jobby Justin injured himself in the run-up to the tournament. 

Kinshuk Debnath has jumped ship and will feature in East Bengal colours for the first time after spending seven seasons at Mohun Bagan. Both Debnath and Chullova will be tasked with shielding shot-stopper Ubaid CK. 

Kinshuk Debnath Mohun Bagan

Bhowmick's men have also won all their pre-season practice matches and are raring to complete a triple hat-trick of successive CFL crowns. 

These two clubs have established a hegemony on the tournament as no other team has ever won the league since Mohammedan Sporting's win in 1981. The absence of other serious competitors has prompted the big two to adopt a casual approach towards this tournament which has let the standard of football fall below the usual benchmark. 

"We have built a better team in comparison to other participating teams. It is natural that we keep in mind the level of the opponents while selecting players," defended a top-ranking Mohun Bagan official on one occasion during CFL 2017. 

East Bengal Supporters CFL 2017

Countless school-boy errors, poor referring standards, unplayable ground conditions and lack of administrative will on part of the IFA have turned the tournament to a mere shadow of its glorious past. Match-officials have been manhandled by both players and supporters of the big clubs if the decisions do not favour their team.

Most star players refrain from playing in CFL to keep injuries at bay. For example, Bagan's marquee player Sony Norde did not feature in the CFL games and joined the squad directly for I-League. 

But in spite of all this, thousands of fans from various corners of the state make their pilgrimage to the Kolkata Maidan to witness the century-old football carnival.

"We do not go there expecting to watch exquisite brand of football. We travel just to be a part of either jubilation or suffering that would befall our teams. It has nothing to do with (the standard of) football." 

"It was a long and painful journey back home from Siliguri last year after the derby. I feel things will change this time," added the Maroon and Green fan with a mixture of belief and apprehension. 

Surely it is not football that takes over the oldest league in Asia; devotion, frenzy and hysteria are the more appropriate contenders.