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Kolkata's Divided Football Fan base among the Two Top-tier National Competitions

Kolkatas Divided Football Fan base among the Two Top-tier National Competitions

Satyaki Dutta

Published: 9 Dec 2018 4:10 AM GMT

Football is a beautiful game, with all the strategies from the managers and great performances to negate or execute those plans by eleven players on the field. The "twelfth man", the dedicated fans, stay invested to their side the most with their intense passion, emotion, and excitement, chants, and waving the flags with the sole goal to inspire the team and intimidate the opponents. And nowhere will you find their effect more than in the City of Joy.

Kolkata, the city, known as the hub of Indian Football, is no exception. As the national football season approaches December, the excitement of the fans, who are torn between two simultaneously running major National competitions, is shooting up to the moon.

Kolkata has a long, rich history with football since the colonial era, intertwined with the struggle for Independence which is well documented in the literature, movies and other popular media.

Mohun Bagan’s victory over East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911 IFA Shield Final provided the fans as well as the common folk a sense of pride and national identity. Introduction of East Bengal FC in 1920 gave birth to a century-old rivalry among these giants, along with the rise in the number of other major Kolkata-base clubs.

All these clubs had a huge, very active and vocal fanbase, religiously attending the outings of their beloved team, and there was a steady supply of footballers from these clubs to the national team. The 1997 Federation Cup Semi Final between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan saw a record attendance of 1,34,000, which is the all-time record for any sport in India.

After the introduction of I-league, the football crown temporarily shifted from Kolkata to Goa, as the monotonous and dismal performance from the Kolkata clubs resulted in a rapid decline in fan attendance.

The 2014-15 season was the year when the tide turned with two major events. Mohun Bagan clinched their 1st I-league championship title defeating the defending champions Bengaluru FC. In the same year, in partnership with IMG, Reliance Industries, and Star Sports, the Indian Super League was launched, where the "other" team from Kolkata- Atlético de Kolkata was crowned champion beating Kerala Blasters.

The emergence of the ISL

ISL started as an alternative to I-league and aspired to become the top league in the country. With great PR, celebrity attendance, a huge influx of sponsorship money and professional approach towards football, the popularity sky-rocketed just like its cricket counterpart, IPL. Atlético de Kolkata with their two championships in 2014 and 2016, acquired lots of new fans who often clashed with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans online and offline, in the claim of superiority in Bengal. I-league club fans were taunted with their clubs' election based structure and inefficiency to attract big names and money, while ISL fans were often termed as glory hunters and plastic fans for running after the glamour league with no history and heritage.

In 2018, East Bengal received a new partner in Quess Corp., with a rumoured 400 crore sponsorship deal, selling a 70 percent stake in the joint venture. The corporate rebranding and packaging, as well as the lump sum money, provided enough resource for Quess East Bengal FC to invigorate themselves into the new season, much to the fans' excitement.

On the other hand, the financial condition of Mohun Bagan FC was marooned in controversy, hypes, and promises of foreign sponsors and investment, that ended without any effective result owing to the club elections and administration changes.

The 2019-19 season has not been great to Kolkata clubs across the two competitions yet.

In ISL, since the parting of the ways with Atlético Madrid, the performance graph of the Kolkata side started spiralling downward. The team faced the longest winless run of 8 games in the tournament in the 2017-18 season and finished in 9th position. Even after changing the managerial positions and recruiting new blood, the team is in dire straits as they sit 6th in the league table with a dwindling hope of going into the playoffs.

The I-league is not providing much to count upon for the Kolkata fans too.

Appointing the former Real Madrid B team manager Alejandro Menéndez García as the coach and roping a number of big names along with the 2018 Worldcupper Costa Rican defender Johnny Acosta Zamora was enough to get the aficionados excited for the season, and the team started with a winning start, but then it all plummeted with a number of draw and shock defeats.

The fans of Mohun Bagan FC are blessed with a bit of optimism as their club is performing better among the three Kolkata Clubs.

The Kolkata league win after eight years, stopping the victory march of their arch-rival, the fans had enough to be excited about the I-league campaign when they got their heartthrob, the Haitian Magician back. Even with Sony Norde's brilliant performance, the home match draw against league leader Chennai City FC served a blow to that confidence though.

Along with bad performance, comes the fall in fan attendance, and ATK is bearing the brunt of it the most.

Even with big names in the team, complimentary tickets, and perks for fans, the attendance keeps falling as ATK performance graph goes down. ATK is losing more fans than the gains, as only a handful from the new generation is interested to join the follower-ranks of this club.

The Mariners and the Red-Gold Brigades faced this too, with very less attendance in the matches which were against smaller teams. They could overcome the problem with ease though, with their deep roots in the history of Bengal, resulting in a strong cordial connection with the fans. The clubs and the fan groups become a family and a matter of pride, and this strengthens the clubs.

The fan groups often clash in matches in U-18 tournaments, the fans take the club flags to the mountaineering expeditions along with the national flag, and when it is the much awaited Kolkata Derby, not a single seat goes unsold. Even with all the bellicose endeavours, the East Bengal-Mohun Bagan fans share a love-hate relationship where they come together extending the helping hands to help the ailing members from either community, raising funds utilizing the power of social media.

ATK still lacks this passion in their fan group.

They have had their share of success, but without consistency and inspiring performances, it is hard to create a loyal fanbase. When the merging of two football leagues occurs as per the recommendation by a two-member committee appointed by FIFA and the Asian Football

Confederation, ATK will have to face the acid test to determine if they can emerge as a fan favourite or be lost in the sands of time. Until then, the key to the hearts and brains of the majority of Kolkata football fans will continue to belong to the century-old Clubs and their magnificent rivalry.

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