Questions are being raised upon the very existence of one of the greatest rivalries in world football.
The sun is setting on a nearly century-old rivalry, or is it? The Salt Lake Stadium will see the romance pan out once again as Mohun Bagan host arch-rivals East Bengal for the penultimate time in I-League in the Kolkata Derby on Sunday. The Mariners have signed a deal with RPSG Group (the group that owns ATK), transferring 80% of the share of the football club to Sanjiv Goenka and will, come next season, participate in the Indian Super League.
This will be a very emotional affair. Fans who have sworn, fought, debated, hurled abuses, sang songs, felt ecstatic and cried over this affair will know that this is one of the last few chances to re-live the moment. The last chance to see the same faces they have been hating (minimalistically, within sportsmanlike behaviour) would be an emotional upheaval.
Coming to the football side of affairs, Mohun Bagan are at possibly the best position. Top of the table after seven rounds, the Mariners have earned 14 points, winning four games, and drawing just one. On the contrary, East Bengal languish on the fifth spot, with just two wins, two draws, and two defeats. However, they do have a game in hand.
Churchill Brothers showed how to open the chunks in Mohun Bagan’s armour, scoring four past Kibu Vicuna’s defence that has been very resolute. In six other games, the Mariners have conceded just twice, showing why they are the team to beat this season. East Bengal would like to take an idea or two from the Goan club’s cavalry.
On the other hand, East Bengal stand at the door of self-assessment. Alejandro Menendez’s side has conceded at least once in each of the six games and Mohun Bagan strikers would be eager to continue the stat. In the previous game, Gokulam Kerala defeated East Bengal 3-1 in their own backyard, earning fans’ ire.
They need to redeem themselves, and there’s no greater stage in Indian football than the Kolkata derby to do just that. They were leading the table until the fifth round, but things have gone downhill since.
19-year-old Subha Ghosh has been the trump card for Kibu Vicuna so far. The youngster, rising through the academy ranks, has been brought on in four games and has scored three times. He can be expected to start alongside Fran Gonzalez. Meanwhile, Joseba Beitia will be expected to run the ropes from the midfield yet again for the hosts as they hunt for their fifth victory.
Marti Crespi, Jamie Colado and Juan Mera Gonzalez will have to play key roles for the visitors if they are to take anything away from the Kolkata Derby.
The merger between ATK and Mohun Bagan will see the end of the latter’s historical existence in Indian football
Fans at both clubs know that it will never be the same again. The I-League has already lost its status as India’s top league, with AFC Champions League spot now allotted to the ISL winner. With Mohun Bagan leaving, the league will further lose its viewership. Will East Bengal follow its arch-rivals? All logical assumptions indicate towards a yes, but the club falls short on having the means at least in the near future.
It is not a new idea – East Bengal’s foray into the ISL. In fact, in February 2019, the Red and Golds came very close to entering the ISL when talks were held between FSDL officials, AIFF senior officials and East Bengal investor Quess Corp’s Chairman Ajit Isaac. No major movement took place and the deal fell flat. Quess looks set to part ways from East Bengal after two turbulent seasons, throwing the Kolkata club in murky waters.
The onus is now on East Bengal to turn its legacy the right way and ride the wave of transition. Being one of the oldest and most successful clubs in India and staying in I-League is not something that is going to go down too well with the fans, as it will restrict the club’s chances to compete with the continental elite.
Coming to the ISL seems the most likely option for East Bengal and thus, the emotions of the Kolkata derby look likely to continue. It may not happen soon due to financial implications, but a deal can never be written off.
The introduction of corporate superpowers in Indian football (that saw an unseen behemoth take the field) via ISL in 2014, has opened doors and avenues that have changed the dynamics forever. For Mohun Bagan, the players will now expect to receive their salaries on time, the almost-defunct academy at Durgapur may get a new lease of life and the club tent may get a renovation.
For now, the Kolkata derby is in its penultimate leg. The first page of this book was written on 28 May 1925 and the last page will be written on March 15 this year. Some pages are added to the already meaty journal that records the annals of the only Indian football match that has evoked fear, drama, tragedy, heartbreaks, and bliss for over a century now.