Sports

East Bengal Football Club: 100 not out

Print edition : August 28, 2020

East Bengal supporters at a rally in Kolkata on July 28, 2019, ahead of the start of centenary celebrations for the club, which turned 100 on August 1, 2020. Photo: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI

Suley Musa and veteran Iranian footballer Majid Bishkar with former captains during the felicitation of East Bengal Club captains as part of centenary celebrations, in Kolkata in August 2019. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Kolkata, August 1, 1981: Manoranjan Bhattacharjee of East Bengal heaved a sigh of relief as Biswajit Das made a spectacular save off a Surajit grounder of Mohun Bagan during the Calcutta League Football Championship between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Ardent East Bengal Club supporter, Jamuna Roy, popularly know as Lozenge Mashi because she sells sugar candies in stadiums at football matches, during a Durand Cup football tournament in Kolkata in August 2019. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Bhaichung Bhutia, East Bengal Club’s star stricker. A file photograph. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

East Bengal Football Club faces its darkest hour without a sponsor, but it remains strong in the love and loyalty of millions of supporters.

“Rarely does the fan say, ‘My club plays today.’ He says, ‘We play today’. He knows it is ‘player number 12’ who stirs up the winds of fervour that propel the ball when she falls asleep, just as the other eleven players know that playing without their fans is like dancing without music.”

− Eduardo Galeano (Soccer in Sun and Shadow)

She sells lozenges in stadiums at football matches, and this is her only source of income. Every time East Bengal Club wins, she forgets about selling the lozenges and distributes them among the club’s fans. “I scatter them around. I have no idea where they go.” She claims she has never missed an East Bengal match, wherever it may be. Her name is Jamuna Roy, but for the millions of supporters of the football club, she is simply “Lozenge Maashi” (aunty). Jamuna, 56, has been a supporter of East Bengal since her childhood. “East Bengal is in my veins. Wherever I may have been born, East Bengal is in my very being… When East Bengal loses, the pain I feel is almost physical,” she told Frontline. Over the years, in her red-and-gold East Bengal jersey, she has become a mascot for the club. In the 2018 India Super Cup in Bhubaneswar, in which East Bengal was the runners-up, the team defender Eduardo Ferreira handed over his medal to Lozenge Maashi, who had landed up in Bhubaneswar to support her team.

It is not really about how many trophies a football club wins, or even the records it holds. Essentially, it is about what the club means to its supporters, the unflinching loyalty it inspires among its followers, and the unconditional love it gets from its fans. In that regard, an East Bengal supporter could very well call her club the greatest football club in the history of the game. On August 1, the iconic club turned 100. The only other club in the country that is over a hundred years old and has played in the top league throughout its existence is Mohun Bagan (1889). Mohammedan Sporting (1891) is at present relegated to the Second Division in the national order.

But as congratulations pour in from VIPs including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, as memories of tears, triumphs and trials come gushing forth through fading old scrapbooks and preserved magazines long out of print, the fan is also acutely and painfully aware that her club is possibly facing the toughest period ever in its illustrious history. In April this year, the team’s main sponsor, Quess Corp Ltd, announced a premature cessation of its professional contract with the club. Its traditional rival Mohun Bagan, after being taken over by ATK FC, the R.P. Sanjeev Goenka-owned football club, has secured a berth for itself in the Indian Super League (ISL). But East Bengal remains out in the wilderness. This year the All India Football Federation has designated the ISL as the top league of the country. East Bengal, for the first time in its history, faces the possibility of being left out from playing in the top league. But even as it faces its worst ever crisis, its fans have no doubt that the club will turn around. Arjun Das, an assistant in a grocery shop, feels nothing can keep his club down. “This situation will only make it come back stronger and invincible. It is a club whose legacy was created by blood and sweat,” he said.

This fierce loyalty may perhaps be traced back to the driving force behind the formation of the club a hundred years ago—the need for an identity and an emblem for a proud, rebellious people hailing from the land on the eastern bank of the Padma, once known as East Bengal, now Bangladesh. A common language notwithstanding, there was a pronounced schism in dialect, culture, tradition, cuisine, food habits and attitude between the two Bengals. Mohun Bagan, East Bengal’s traditional foe and also paradoxically its soul brother, was a “Calcutta” club, a “Ghoti” (a term describing the traditional inhabitants of Bengal’s western districts) institution controlled by Calcutta’s moneyed babus and even named after a lane in north Calcutta. East Bengal represented the largely marginalised “Bangals”, that is, people from East Bengal. There was little love lost between these two peoples, and the rivalry between the two clubs and their supporters is the stuff of legend. Even today, an insult to the club one is loyal to cannot go unanswered. It would not be an exaggeration to say that love affairs have foundered and ties of friendship and even marriage have been severely tried over respective loyalties to the two clubs.

But the rivalry kept football alive in the country even as sponsors piled crores on cricket. Back in 2003, when East Bengal created history by becoming the first club to win an international championship by beating Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana, 3-1 in the Asean Club Championship final in Jakarta, the late great Chuni Goswami, one of the greatest legends of Mohun Bagan and Indian football, told Frontline: “We [East Bengal and Mohun Bagan] are complementary to each other, not contradictory. For over 80 years this rivalry and fierce loyalty of the fans have kept football alive and kicking in Kolkata.” For all their animosity towards East Bengal, Mohun Bagan fans did not refrain from celebrating the historic win, which came 92 years after their club carved out its name in letters of ever-shining gold by beating the British York Regiment 2-1 in 1911. In the 369 derby matches between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, East Bengal has won 129, while Mohun Bagan has won 119; 121 matches were drawn.

For the people of East Bengal, the need for an identity became more acute than ever after the 1947 Partition. As millions started leaving their erstwhile homeland in what was now East Pakistan and tried to rebuild their lives in West Bengal, the legend of the East Bengal football club began to take shape. It ceased to remain just a football club and assumed the identity of a rallying point for the diaspora of a displaced people. Like its supporters, the club, too, has had to struggle every bitter inch of its way to glory. It rebelled against the establishment, fought against injustice and back-room machinations of rivals, and never once surrendered or sought an easy way out. Refugees from East Pakistan saw in East Bengal’s struggles a reflection of their own, and the club and its supporters rejoiced in and drew inspiration from each other’s triumphs – on the football field and outside. No matter what station in life a person may occupy, wherever she may be in the world, the call of the club will always bring her home.

It has been nearly 73 years since East Bengal as a region ceased to exist. (What was, roughly, East Bengal became East Pakistan after Partition, and was renamed Bangladesh after the liberation war of 1971.) Yet, the fans of East Bengal Club have continued to grow with every succeeding generation. Allegiance to the club is perceived to be a valuable legacy handed down from one generation to the next. Debanjan Chakrabarti, Director of the British Council, East and Northeast India, put it succinctly: “Supporting East Bengal was a family legacy I inherited from my mamabari [mother’s family]. My grandparents are from Bogra in Rajshahi division of what is now Bangladesh. My maternal uncles nurtured this fandom for me and my many cousins. East Bengal for me is a deep emotion that runs beyond just football. It’s about my identity—the red of the club colours depicts that for me—as someone whose family history is linked to the greater story of this subcontinent. On the other hand, the yellow of East Bengal’s colours and the emblem of the torch exhort me and my generation of East Bengal supporters to look ahead and go forward.” Chakrabarti has passed down his love for the club to his 14-year-old daughter Debashmi.

A memorable journey

Established on August 1, 1920, East Bengal Club was born out of a clash of egos within the Jorabagan football club over the inclusion of a player in a match against Mohun Bagan. Jorabagan’s vice-president and noted industrialist Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri walked out of the club and set up a new club with Sailesh Bose, Ramesh Chandra Sen and Aurobindo Ghosh. The club was named East Bengal, after the region from which its founders hailed, and its chief patron in its early years was Manmatha Nath Roy Chowdhury, the Maharaja of Santosh, after whom the Santosh Trophy is named. The club made its debut in the 1920 Hercules Cup, a seven-a-side competition, which it won, and subsequently entered the Indian Foot Ball Association (IFA) league’s Second Division and immediately announced its arrival by finishing third.

In 1924, East Bengal became joint champions of the Second Division with Cameroon B, but it still found itself unable to enter the First Division because of an unfair rule laid down by the British-controlled Governing Body of the IFA that no more than two Indian clubs would be allowed to play in it. Mohun Bagan and Aryans were already in the elite league. But in 1925, the club’s relentless efforts to change the oppressive IFA rule paid off. Not only did it break into the First Division, but it beat arch rival Mohun Bagan in the very first match that the two played against each other. In their next meeting, Mohun Bagan avenged its loss, and thus began one of the greatest and longest-lasting rivalries in sports history.

However, in 1928 East Bengal was once again relegated to the Second Division. And once again it clawed its way back into the First Division, by dint of merit, by 1932. That year, East Bengal could have been the first Indian team to win the Calcutta Football League (CFL) but for sheer bad luck. It was poised to head the league if it could beat the British regimental side Durham Light Infantry. However, with the injury of its defender Paritosh Majumdar, it had to play with one player short for the second half of the match (the substitution rule did not exist at that time). Durham managed to hold East Bengal to a 3-3 draw, and the club’s dreams of creating history went up in smoke. Though East Bengal won the title eventually in 1942, it was Mohammedan Sporting that had the honour of being the first Indian team to lift the crown, in 1934. However, at the end of the day, it is East Bengal that has won the largest number of CFL titles, becoming champions 39 times.

According to Kushal Chakrabroty, a well-known chronicler of the club, East Bengal’s history can be divided into two phases—the first 50 years until 1970, and the next 50 years until the present day. “The first 50 years were marked by the struggle to establish itself and overcome all the hurdles thrown in its way. After that, it was the time for glory and to change the face of Indian football forever. Until 1970, it had won the CFL eight times, and in the next 50 years it won it 31 times,” Chakraborty told Frontline.

But that does not mean that the club’s heroics in the field in its first 50 years were by any means insignificant. In 1951, East Bengal became the first Indian team to win the IFA Shield three times in a row (1949 to 1951). For this achievement, the English FA annual almanac of 1951-52 adjudged East Bengal the best Indian soccer club. Between 1949 and 1953, playing a five-forward set-up, comprising the legendary combination of P. Venkatesh, Appa Rao, K.P. Dhanraj, Ahmed Khan, and P.B. Saleh—collectively known as the Pancha Pandavas—East Bengal won 11 trophies, including three CFLs, three IFA Shields, two consecutive Durand Cups (1951, 1952), two DCM cups, and one Rovers Cup (1949). In the years between 1949 and 1953, East Bengal scored 387 goals, of which 260 were shot by the Pancha Pandavas.

It had one of the best records against foreign teams and in 1948 defeated the Chinese Olympic XI (2-0); in 1951, the Swedish FC Gothenburg, (1-0); in 1956, the Chinese Olympic XI again (3-1); and in 1970, PAS Tehran FC (1-0) in the IFA Shield Final. At the end of the 1970 final, the entire Eden Gardens stadium was lit up by the burning torches of 80,000 East Bengal supporters. Until 1970, the club won a total of 45 trophies. In the next 50 years, it would go on to win 116 more.

East Bengal Club won the CFL for a record six times in a row between 1970 and 1975; four of these wins were under the legendary P.K. Banerjee. This record was to remain until East Bengal itself broke it by winning the league eight times in a row from 2010 to 2017. It has won the IFA Shield 20 times, including five times in a row between 1972 and 1976. In the 1975 final against Mohun Bagan, East Bengal won 5-0—the biggest victory margin in the IFA Shield’s history. Forty-five years later, Mohun Bagan supporters are still smarting from the result.

East Bengal Club went on to win the Durand Cup 11 more times, the Rovers Cup six times, DCM three more times, and the Bordoloi trophy four times. On July 26, 2003, it created history by winning the Asean Club Championship in Jakarta, and becoming the first Indian club to win a continental crown. Though East Bengal won the National Football League only three times (2000-2001, 2002-2003, 2003-2004), Kushal Chakraborty pointed out that it had played all the NFL/I-League seasons, had the best cumulative record in terms of total points, registered the largest number of wins and scored largest number of goals. “East Bengal’s presence in the top National League is like Brazil’s presence in the World Cup,” said Chakraborty.

Among the great features of the club were its iconoclastic nature and its ability to break barriers and take risks. At a time when the club’s unspoken rule was that it would play only Indian players, there came Fred Pugsley, the great Anglo-Indian player from Burma (Myanmar), at their gate, seeking asylum. East Bengal let him in, and he proceeded to rule the field with his magic in the 1940s. Bhaichung Bhutia, one of the greatest Indian football players ever, remembers how East Bengal “took a chance with a 17-year-old boy from Sikkim” in 1993, “and that is how my life began”. Bhutia went on to become the highest scorer for East Bengal with 148 goals.

East Bengal was also a pioneer in bringing in foreign players through international transfers. There were the Nigerian David Williams in 1979; the two Iranian wizards Majid Bishkar and Jamshed Nassiri in the 1980s; the Brazilians Junior and Douglas De Silva; World Cuppers Emeka Ezeugo of Nigeria, Johnny Acosta of Costa Rica and Suley Musa of Ghana; and many others from different corners of the world, who will always be welcome in Kolkata.

In every decade, the club has thrown up superstars, each of whom has represented an era—Majid in the 1930s; Pugsley and the Pancha Pandavas in the 1940s; Tulsidas Balaram in the 1950s; Mohammad Habib in the 1960s; Subhash Bhowmik, Gautam Sarkar, Shyam Thapa, Sudhir Karmakar, Surajit Sengupta and others in the 1970s; Krishanu De, Tarun Dey, Bikash Panji, Manoranjan Bhattacharjee in the 1980s; Bhaichung Bhutia in the 1990s and 2000s; and so many others. They all live on in the collective memory of the club’s supporters. The legacy of the players, too, is handed down from one generation to another. When Majid Bishkar, the man the Kolkata crowd hailed as “Badshah”, left the country quietly and in disgrace to go back to his home in Iran, many might have thought his memory would fade away with time. Yet, when he returned after more than 30 years at the invitation of East Bengal in 2019, there were thousands waiting for him outside the airport. Chants of “Badshah” filled the air as he appeared. The majority of those present were not even born when he ruled the football pitches of Bengal. An unknown in his own country, Badshah will always be a superstar wherever there is an East Bengal supporter.

Even in its darkest hour, it is inconceivable for East Bengal supporters to think that their club will not rise again as it has done so many times in the past. One is reminded of a story about the great middleweight boxer Stanley Ketchel (1886-1910). When he died, his manager is rumoured to have said, “Tell them to start counting ten over him. He’ll get up.”

The faith that East Bengal supporters have in their club is no different. With the COVID situation in the State getting out of hand, they could not be at the club grounds this year. But wherever they were, they put on their jerseys, shook off the dark clouds threatening to gather in their minds, and prepared to meet the future head-on. And with every jersey worn, the flame of the club burnt a little brighter.

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