When East Bengal met Mohun Bagan in the I-League in January, it seemed like the writing was on the wall in terms of the fate of the Kolkata Derby, at least for the immediate future.
Mohun Bagan won the match 2-1 on the day and just like their performance on the pitch, wheels were being set in motion off it to ensure the club’s smooth passage into the Indian Super League (ISL). The merger with ATK FC had just been announced and although fans were divided on the issue of potentially losing their identity, few would have argued against the financial and structural benefits that this move promised.
On the other side of Maidan, East Bengal was in doldrums. The club had all but conceded the I-League title to Mohun Bagan, there was a certain sense of vulnerability within the squad which had become more and more apparent as the season progressed. After the sudden resignation of head coach Alejandro Menendez, his deputy Mario Rivera was selected as his successor.
— Superpower Football (@SuperpowerFb) September 27, 2020
But with a sense of uncertainty surrounding the club with respect to its destination next season, even a late surge in form could not lift the fans’ morale. Then the pandemic struck, followed by the separation from Quess Corp in May, and the East Bengal management were caught in a tricky situation in terms of finding new sponsors during the lockdown. Multiple meetings happened and collaborations were mooted, but nothing tangible came out of it.
Cut to September, and it seems like all of that was a distant nightmare. East Bengal have new investors in the form of Shree Cement Private Ltd, they submitted their bid to participate in this year’s ISL, and that has since been accepted. While the announcement comes barely two months before the scheduled start of this year’s tournament, the Red and Gold management for once wouldn’t be complaining even though they have that much less time to assemble a strong team and finalize the head coach.
The fact that the first Kolkata derby in the ISL is going to be a reality sometime soon should give them plenty of motivation to do the needful even as fans rejoice a fresh beginning for the club and a chance to compete against their traditional foes on a new stage.
Indeed, the possibility that East Bengal would be left behind in the I-League, which from this season is officially the second division of Indian football, while ATK Mohun Bagan made rapid strides in the ISL with multiple quality signings and a foray into the AFC Cup, was a thought that would have kept East Bengal fans awake at night. However, with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s intervention and Football Sports Development Limited’s (FSDL) decision to increase the number of teams in the ISL to 11, those fans can now heave a sigh of relief.
The fact that the derby will now be a part of the ISL is huge for the marketability of the league. A large chunk of the football-watching population in India comes from Bengal, most of them being fans of the two giants. With the decreasing relevance of the I-League year upon year, fans had grown somewhat agitated with the fact that the occasion of the derby had become bigger than the tournament itself.
The ISL, with all its fanfare, social media prominence, viewership and overall packaging is undoubtedly a better fit for what is the biggest game in Indian football since time immemorial. On the flip side, young football and specifically ISL fans in places like Bengaluru, Kochi, Hyderabad and so on, who didn’t follow the I-League and therefore are not used to watching these two teams much would also be in for a treat.
Of course, to have a sense of familiarity with the madness that is the Kolkata derby, it will still take some time, especially because the fans’ presence stadiums is an integral part of the derby atmosphere, even when you’re watching the match on television. However, with football in India soon to be back on its feet, expectations are high that the two pillars of Kolkata Maidan can elevate the ISL into another level from this season onwards.