With renewed hope, new ownership and a god at the helm, SC East Bengal begin a new chapter this year as the latest members of the ISL.
The city of Kolkata is the birthplace of three of the biggest clubs in Indian football – East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting Club. Each have a permanent place in the hall of fame on the Indian subcontinent and each club brings its own value to the sports’ landscape.
2020 marks 100 years of East Bengal’s founding and it is in this special year that the club will begin a new chapter – in the Indian Super League.
As a new adventure beckons for the Red and Gold Brigade, they go into it with the backing of a new ownership in Shree Cement. The roster of players has also seen some valuable additions with the likes of Anthony Pilkington, Danny Fox and Matti Steinmann.
The man at the helm leading this team into their new chapter, is one who is all too familiar with making history – Merseyside’s very own God, Robbie Fowler.
To say that Kolkata is the epicentre of Indian football would be understating it. The city and its people live and breathe football. They live and breathe in the success of Mohun Bagan or East Bengal.
In Kolkata, supporting either of the two clubs passionately is something that every fan identifies with. Although the traditional fans of both teams were always there, there was something missing. That gap was filled by the Ultras of both teams.
” We started back in 2013, with the thought of promoting the culture that is so prominent in parts of Europe and Latin America and some parts of Asia. We started the movement and there were obstacles”, says Krishnendu Dutta, a businessman and member of the East Bengal Ultras group.
Krishnendu spoke with First Time Finish about his experiences as a fan and about East Bengal.
” It is pretty difficult to do such a thing in Kolkata. The crowd here are very orthodox. It is not a normal thing here to chant and sing for the team. Especially when the team are down by a goal or two. People are not accustomed to seeing such things here.”, recalls Krishnendu.
“So the journey initially was very difficult, but we started to make people understand what we are doing. And few of the things which we did are liked not only by people here in Kolkata, but also by the entire footballing fraternity in India.”
“Now we are one of the finest in the country, probably one of the finest in Asia.”, says Krishnendu.
Similar to Ultras groups across the World, East Bengal’s Ultras play a prominent role in creating a tense atmosphere on matchdays.
“The atmosphere was not only important to support the team, it was also important to intimidate the away team. The players on our team know that whatever may be the result, the fans are behind us. It gives them an extra motivation. “, explains Krishnendu.
“If you consider the opposition, coming to play they are getting intimidated. They say there is vociferous sound here. There are pyros, there are Tifos so it’s very difficult for the travelling team to play in such a condition. So that’s what we do.”
Amra Korbo Sringojoy and Haat e Moshal, Buk e Barood; Amra Holam, Lal Holud
We will do it and torch in hand, gunpowder in the heart, we are red and gold respectively– One of the first East Bengal fan chants
However, ahead of the beginning of the ISL, East Bengal fans will not be able to support the team like before. The Coronavirus pandemic continues to make regular life difficult for people in all spheres of society. Nonetheless, the fans are confident of voicing their support through other means.
“We will be doing something – we will be doing screenings here, and shooting videos of different activities. Keeping within the norms of the situation at hand. And we will try to pass on this message to the players – we may be far, but we are with the team.”, explains Krishnendu.
Debanjan Banerjee, who researches and documents football culture and fan movements around Asia which he showcases on his YouTube channel Footytraveller, is an East Bengal supporter and a member of the national team supporters group blue pilgrims.
Debanjan, speaking to First Time Finish, underlined the overall value that East Bengal’s addition will bring to the ISL.
“East Bengal is a 100 year old club with a rich legacy of domestic and international success. Most clubs are less than 7 years old in the ISL barring Mohun Bagan. The brand value and credibility of the league increases almost immediately with their introduction.”
” East Bengal additionally brings to the league a huge fan base, an established culture of away support and one of the biggest rivalries in world football. From a viewership perspective, the ISL has all to gain.”
After parting ways with previous owners Quess Corporation, East Bengal welcomed Shree Cement as their new owners. With the new owners, the initial signs are looking positive.
There is a change in management with Robbie Fowler taking over from Mario Rivera. The Spaniard led the club to a second place finish in the I-League last season. The changes have been swift and effective, which points to a smooth running operation in the background.
Credit to management
“I should give credit to the management, the way that they have formed the team in a short space of time. They have managed to bring a new manager, foreign staff and all of the six foreign players in such a short space of time.” says Krishnendu.
Debanjan’s thoughts are in support of these changes as well. He says, “Fans in the Kolkata Maidan have dealt with unprofessional management for decades now, for both clubs – East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
The taste of professionalism is something they are slowly experiencing. I hope both clubs are taken to the level they deserve as 100+ year old clubs, with their respective new managements.”
Liverpool’s reach as a football club is undoubtedly massive. The Merseyside giants have a loyal fanbase in India, with academies set up here as well. Krishnendu is one of the many Liverpool fans in Kolkata excited to see Fowler manage his team.
“Luckily, I’m a Liverpool fan. I have been following them from 1998 and the reason I started following Liverpool was Robbie Fowler. He is termed as ‘God’ by Liverpool fans. So God coming to my mother club was something I never expected.”
Fowler did not take long to get straight down to business. Roping in players he has experience with, like Steinmann, Scott Neville and Aaron Amadi-Holloway. Given the short space of time he has, recruiting players familiar with his methods will prove to be key in the long-term.
Additionally, he has also brought in the likes of Pilkington, Fox and Jacques Maghoma who are well-known within the pyramid of English football.
“He is bringing players that he has played with or has knowledge about. So I think, given the time we have, this is a practical move.” says Krishnendu.
When looking into new arrivals, East Bengal fans also look into how the player fared in the eyes of the supporters of his previous clubs. This influences their opinions on the transfers, to an appreciable degree.
” What we do, we as a group when we discuss about a player, we also check how the previous clubs’ supporters rated him. Pilkington was a fan favourite, Steinmann was a favourite as well.”, explains Krishnendu.
The Kolkata Derby
The Kolkata Derby is one of the fiercest rivalries across the World. It is certainly the biggest derby in Indian football. Mohun Bagan are now termed as ATK Mohun Bagan after their merger with Atletico de Kolkata in January this year.
The Indian Super League will be host to a greatly significant fixture in the Indian football calendar. Krishnendu believes that while it is still a derby, it is a ‘new derby’ in many ways. Both teams will meet in East Bengal’s opening fixture this week, in the ISL.
Given that ATK Mohun Bagan is a new entity now, the derby will have a slightly different feel to it.
” See technically, it is a derby, but it is a new derby. ATK Mohun Bagan is a new team. When a merger happens, two entities come together and form a new one. This isn’t the old Mohun Bagan team. It’s a tough match to start with, but it will not have the same flavour as previous derbies.” explains Krishnendu.
Kolkata’s football fabric
Debanjan throws further light on the true meaning of the rivalry behind the two teams.
“The derby is played between the clubs and everything else surrounding it, is experienced by the fans. So whether Mohun Bagan have merged or not, the grassroots rivalry remains the same as long as the identities of these two clubs exist strongly in the fabric of society in Kolkata.”
“I feel a lot of the ATK Mohun Bagan and ISL administration have realized that their casual and clandestine efforts to erase an identity led to a backlash they never perceived could happen, and eventually things are being put into place.”
With the arrival of East Bengal into the ISL, the league’s value has increased drastically. The vast footballing culture, the fan culture and the identity that they carry will make them a special team to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
With a God like Fowler at the helm, the players will have an extra motivation to do well. For, if they do well, they will certainly become the Gods of a new generation of East Bengal fans.