The road heading north of Eden Gardens is a calm and quiet one, with some old trees lining the sides of the narrow street near the famous stadium. The trees and the road are silent witnesses to the history of the Maidan’s club para, which is quite different from Bangladesh’s club para in Motijheel, and the fount of Kolkata’s glorious footballing heritage stands at the end of the street in the form of the century-old East Bengal Football Club.
A rich trophy room on the left-hand side of the entrance greets visitors to the historic club. Hanging on the wall are iconic images of the club’s successes since its establishment in 1920. The building also houses a hall of fame featuring some rare photographs.
The gymnasium, dressing room, referees’ room, medical room and the steam and cooling berths for players is situated below the wrought-iron gallery, which was once made of wood. On the celebration stage at the centre of the two main gates leading to the arena a slogan proclaimed that ‘the ball has been changed, but the fight for possession has not changed’. Another slogan proudly declares that ‘in winning the century too, the red and yellow does not halt… East Bengal, East Bengal’ (Shotabdi joye o theme thakena lal holuder dol, East Bengal, East Bengal).
East Bengal FC, however, are yet to win the prestigious I-League trophy and have remained trophy-less since the introduction of the Indian professional football league in 2007. The three-time National Football League (now-defunct) champions instead had to be content with four runners-up finishes.
“Nowadays, we don’t see dedicated footballers who love the clubs. In days gone by a player had to be of high quality to sport the jersey of East Bengal or Mohun Bagan, but that is not the case now. They come to the club and leave after the match. Players like Krishanu Dey, Bikash Panji, Shishir Gosh and many other popular players once played for East Bengal but the club doesn’t have players of that standard anymore,” said former East Bengal player and current youth level coach Sasthi Duley at the club tent yesterday.
The former Indian national midfielder, who was born and brought up in Hoogli, said: “Players are not coming from beyond Kolkata, like they did in the past. The standard of football has gone down, not just in Kolkata.”
The 40-year-old said that the club is nursing three age-group teams to strengthen the pipeline, and also a coaching programme for school-going students, who get the opportunity to train three days a week for a token fee.
Duley also informed that the expenditure of the club has increased significantly for the players’ transfers and that the club is now getting the benefit of the youth programmes as players are coming through. He added that they have signed up some eight to 10 players this season.
Despite falling standards, the hype surrounding the derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan has not gone down, evidenced by the craze of the teams’ supporters during the Zee-Bangla Football League tournament final. The Abahani-Mohammedan rivalry in Bangladesh was comparable, but it has waned over the last decade with Mohammedan SC Ltd becoming weaker.
“The emotion of the supporters still remain; it has actually increased. You can see that whenever East Bengal and Mohun Bagan square off in any league or tournament,” said Duley.
The high-ups at East Bengal are capitalising on the club’s popularity as they are regularly getting investors and sponsors as well as donations from club members.
“The club is running well because of investors and sponsors. It is also selling merchandise in the form of T-shirts, jerseys, coffee mugs, bracelets and many other things,” said East Bengal executive committee member Subrata Sarkar over the phone from Mumbai.
Subrata believes finishing among the top three in the I-League and a decent number of supporters are helping them to rope in sponsors, with many more in the pipeline eager to engage with the club.
East Bengal FC also has a good relationship with Bangladeshi organisers and players. Bangladesh’s best defender, the late Monem Munna, Sheikh Mohammad Aslam, Rizvi Ahmed Rumy, Golam Gaus and many others had played for East Bengal and Munna’s name is in the list of the foreign quota on the club’s official website.
Subrata informed that they plan to invite Munna’s family members for their centenary celebrations which will continue till July 2021 as they have already given a grand reception to all previous captains.