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It is not often that Indian football is at the forefront of anything, minus maybe the ongoing corruption and scandal between the All India Football Federation (AIFF), Football Sports Development League (FSDL), the Indian Super League (ISL) franchises and I-League clubs. However, amid all the raging controversies and scams, a particular fan base of one of India’s oldest and most accomplished clubs has been quietly preparing for a never-seen-before event in Indian football history.
Who are the East Bengal Ultras?Since their birth in December 2013, they grown from being a small unit of five to ten people to thousands dedicatedly working to improve the fan culture in Kolkata’s galleries, an effort that is overseen and managed by about 100 to 150 core members.
How did the Ultras come to be?As mentioned before, East Bengal is one of India’s most iconic clubs, with a legacy embellished with trophies and legendary footballers. However, the club was also famous among the local football circles for its supporters. In the 1970s and 1980s, where many would say East Bengal was at its most dominant, both nationally and internationally, their supporters were about as legendary as their players. In fact, in 1970, when the Red and Gold Brigade won the IFA Shield by defeating PAS Club of Iran, over 80,000 fans lit up flaming paper torches (called “Moshal” in colloquial lingo) which, to this day, remains one of the most iconic images in Indian football history. The East Bengal Ultras was conceptualised to bring that magic back. Since the turn of the century, the massive support has waned or toned down, and the Ultras aim to bring that back, not through abusive languages, which was extremely popular in Kolkata but through “chant culture”. Taking inspirations from the fans of clubs like St. Etienne, Legia Warsaw, Galatasaray (who coincidentally, share the same colours as East Bengal), APOEL Tel Aviv and Napoli, the group have come forward to present some of the most radical, innovative and colourful ideas that have ever been captured in Indian football history.
How do the Ultras make it look so awesome?The Ultras culture is based on a typical anti-establishment attitude. Rocking scarves, jackets, smoke flares and drums, it is a culture that essentially emanated in Europe post World War II but has been interpreted across the world in different styles. For the East Bengal Ultras, it is expressed in the form of exploring the rich history of the club, that is how it was formed and how its colossal fanbase came to be. At the heart of all their artwork and chants, this core ideology is what sets the Ultras apart.
While talking to a core member of the Ultras, he mentioned the “Then, Now, Forever” TIFO is a particularly revered one amongst the faithful, which was unfurled at the Kolkata Derby against the eternal rivals in January 2019. Pyro shows is another feature that sets the Ultras apart from other fan groups. Armed with smoke bombs and fire, they create an intimidating atmosphere which is particularly noticeable during the Calcutta Football League (CFL). Games during the CFL take place in less secure and more open stadiums, like the ones in Kalyani and Barasat, which makes it easier for the Ultras to carry the devices.
Be it in creating South Asia’s first 3D tifo in 2016, pole flags, colossal banners that depict how partition and the creation of Bangladesh gave rise to the club’s loyal fanbase and how a history of discrimination and ill-treatment has made them as fierce as they are today, the originality and passion permeates through all of it.
According to the member, who wishes to remain unnamed, the same is reflected in the chants as well. Be it “Sringojoy”, “Lorechi Onek Juddho” or “Bangal Brigade Ailo Re”, the warrior-like psychology is reflected in almost every line. East Bengal fans have always had to fight to snatch their rights, and the Ultras embody that attitude: be it in the galleries or be it in the fight against the AIFF who are trying to demote the I-League to the second tier of the Indian football structure for their own nefarious needs.
As I-League matches take place in the Salt Lake Stadium, the administration usually does not let them carry the prerequisites for a pyro show. However, despite the restrictions, small-scale pyro shows have been visible even during the I-League which, to their credit, has not threatened the safety and security of those around them.
What are the Ultras planning next?To celebrate the club’s centenary year, the Ultras have come up with an event called “Tunes of Colony” on the 31st of July, 2019. Slated to be organised at Sobhabazar Natmandir, it will be chant-based musical night much along the lines of what Liverpool fans did in a viral video before the Champions League final this season. Being held on the eve of the centenary celebrations, the core team hopes to see many young and old faces turn up to celebrate the triumphs of a century-long establishment like no other. It will be an experience like no other, says the member mentioned above who also added that it would be the first time that such an event will be taking place in India and even probably in entire Southeast Asia. Given that the club has plans to celebrate its centenary year all season-long in 2019/20, one can be confident that “Tunes of Colony” will only be the first of many such events. With East Bengal still searching for its first league title since 2003, the Ultras will certainly keep setting benchmarks for other fan groups to follow with their vociferous support through myriad tifos, banners, Chants and pyro shows.