During the first week of the Indian Super League, TV commentators alerted us about an impending ‘Monster Match’. It was billed as the biggest derby in Indian — Asian — football, which is true. A first-time ISL watcher encountering such relentless promotion could well imagine that East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan was what the League had been yearning for from day one but had somehow been blindsided when an outfit called Atlético de Kolkata turned up and magically fitted into the ISL’s one-city, one-team franchise model. And any chatter about Mohun Bagan and East Bengal playing ISL from Siliguri and Durgapur was just slanderous gossip.
Okay, no need to be churlish now. Bygones.
When SC East Bengal and ATK Mohun Bagan face off at the Tilak Maidan, Vasco today, it is going to be a monster match. Not from what transpires on the field — it could be a nil-nil skirmish — but what lies beneath and ahead.
The ATK and SC that prefix the two Calcutta giants belong to their ISL fund managers, for which their fans are grateful. It is their resources that have got the clubs into the league attracting the biggest money and names in Indian football. What the suffixes to ATK and SC could do for the ISL cannot be quantified.
Despite its initial euphoria, the ISL had struggled with its cellophane wrapping and plastic container. This is not to deride everyone working on the ground around ISL. It is just what the ISL represented, even after the meaningless ‘marquee’ names were done away with and the status of being India’s highest football league obtained from the Asian Football Confederation.
On the current season’s first Monday, Odisha played Hyderabad: two years ago, the ISL had featured Delhi Dynamos and FC Pune City, except FC Pune City disbanded and Delhi became Odisha. Into this spotty roster over a six-year lifespan come Mohun Bagan (est. 1889) and East Bengal (est. 1920) bringing with them history, folklore, blood and tears. The ISL’s owners, Football Sport Development Limited (est. 2014), will deny that their league needed validation, but the Calcutta derby’s hardsell on TV speaks another language.
On the flipside, the two ‘legacy’ clubs should have their medieval management put under the examination and overhaul as their fans have always wanted. Matching the ISL’s basic shade of professionalism is the least they could be made to do. The induction of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal into the ISL becomes a worry for India’s other, older, non-fabricated community clubs and their leagues; but that is another topic for deeper analysis.
Neither the owners nor the financiers of the Calcutta giants will give the ISL its much-needed oxygen: the fans will. In the tradition of football clubs worldwide, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal fans will bring the street and its mood into the ISL. The first sign of influence? The takedown of a cringeworthy advertisement featuring the ATK and Mohun Bagan colours being fused together via a washing machine soak. Angry fans were having none of that nonsense. Fans from other ISL teams are delighted. Among them, Kerala Blasters’ Manjappada (Yellow Army) are the most visible. Their 2018-19 boycott in protest against management and team was visible on TV with reduced crowd numbers.
The Mohun Bagan and East Bengal fans will bring a dimension of public participation in the ISL where opinion can’t be whitewashed, muted or silenced. Where management of either club or league can be challenged, questioned, even hectored. The ISL has never had anything like it. Finally, the plastic wrapping could come off. With fans attending matches hopefully in the 2021-22 season, as airline safety instructions say, brace for impact.
When the first ISL season was kicking off in October 2014, Naomi Klein released her book on capitalism and climate change with its powerful, resonant title, This Changes Everything. When the Calcutta derby begins in Goa, that title will loom in the imagination. Indian football’s fledgling free market will be shaking hands with its oldest, passionately-followed, chaotically-run community enterprises.
This had better change everything.