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Has Kolkata's derby run its course?

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FEEDING FRENZY: The Mohun Bagan section of the crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium

The shameful scenes at the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal derby could prove the final nail in an Indian club football culture that is going nowhere...

Crosstown rivalries the world over are cooked in cauldrons of passion, the emotions rising to feverish pitch on derby days and, from time to time, even digressing from civility. But, then, not many can rival what has now degenerated into a cheap one-upmanship between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, or the senseless violence and ridiculous rhetoric it spawns with such regularity.

Mohun Bagan's refusal to take the field after the break during Sunday's I-League match against their arch-rivals even as one lakh spectators waited at the Salt Lake Stadium, and the manipulations in its murky wake, is also a statement on the state of the game in the country. Despite the large crowds it continues to attract, the 'Kolkata derby' has remained maddeningly mired in a win-at-any-cost mentality and not evolved into something more substantial. Year after year, match after match, the two 'Kolkata giants' have dished out the same fare, which has mostly hovered around mediocrity. Stirring coast-to-coast contests are as rare as club officials keen to do good to the game. Both clubs, undisputed leaders in Indian football till the other day, refuse to be inspired by this nearly 90 years of rivalry to strive for a higher plane, to graduate into better run institutions where the system would produce winning teams. Where club officials, coaches and footballers don't have to play to the galleries but just pursue their respective jobs with sincerity. Instead, this senseless joust.

Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal is the derby whole of India used to look forward to, and because of their huge fan bases, is still followed from foreign shores. It is now a derby that is being dangerously devalued, thus pulling down one of the biggest properties of Indian football. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have already lost their position of pre-eminence as the country's strongest football teams. Now they are poised to lose a lot more.

The gen-next has already shifted focus in numbers to the European leagues, following footballers at Manchester United, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid and the likes even as those in the red-and-golds of East Bengal or the green-andmaroons of Mohun Bagan have an unclear ring to them. It's a disconnect that is dangerously growing, and the two clubs need to get their act together before the erosion of the fans' sense of belonging goes beyond the point of no-return.

The ghoti-bangal (west and east Bengal) divide that had fuelled this rivalry even in the seventies and eighties has long melted. It was upon the two clubs to establish themselves as irrepressible entities that would attract new fans on the basis of their respective standing in Indian football even as they held on to the old die-hards that still prescribed parochialism when it came to their support for a football club. But the two clubs have let themselves, and Indian football, down. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal could have and should have taken the lead in taking Indian football to the next level through good governance and imbibing of modern means and methods to improve the club and the team, their rivalry actually helping to push each other. Instead, they stoop to disgraceful discourses and decisions that are an assault on sense and sensibility.

Demanding compensation from their arch-rivals for Syed Rahim Nabi's injuries "because it was East Bengal's home match" when the missile that hit him had come from a gallery occupied by Mohun Bagan fans;suggesting that only 25 Mohun Bagan supporters were at the stadium that day because "we were given just 25 tickets";admonishing the East Bengal players who carried the bleeding Nabi out of harm's way "because it was unscientific" . . . On this occasion, no one could have defined the theatre of the absurd better than how Mohun Bagan officials have been doing over the past few days. They have gone to court as well, coming back armed with an order that the AIFF should hear their side of the story before taking a decision on the match and the club, but no one is sure how much that will help now that the Match Referee's report has indicted them for not completing the match.

While these seem to be no more than stalling techniques, the AIFF is matching it with characteristic dithering. What has kept them from putting into process provisions already there in print and known to all participating clubs is not known. Ironically, the rule book was read out by its CEO Sunando Dhar soon after the match had to be called off but the AIFF top brass seems to have suddenly developed cold feet.

By the look of it, the fact that Mohun Bagan is a 114-year-old club and has a huge fan base - a card that the 'Big Two' have played unashamedly to seek immunity and other favours - is now being factored in even as its unapologetic officials belt out a belligerence that borders on defiance against the game's ruling body in the country. The AIFF is buying time, "looking into all aspects" before taking a decision, when it could have gone by the rule book and had Mohun Bagan do all the running.

According to I-League's rules and regulations, Mohun Bagan can be banned for up to two years. While the ILeague is a professional league, the quasi-professional ground that is Indian football never quite allows it to be run like one. Could the Tolgay Ozbey transfer episode drag on for so long when the season started? Could Okolie Odafa, whose red card had sparked off crowd trouble on Sunday, avoided censure and penalties even from his own club for his outburst against the referee in a professional set-up? Could clubs have challenged rules and regulations after flouting them?

Even if it presides over this quasi-professional arrangement, the most logical way for AIFF to arrive at a decision on Mohun Bagan's latest transgression is to follow the rule book and the norms that it would have to adhere to had it been a professional system. Club officials, particularly those in Kolkata's 'Big Two', have used this grey area to their advantage. So often, tactics off the field have become more consequential and engaging than those on it. Gripped by the fear of losing, club officials often exude a lack of confidence that percolates to the playing unit and the fans. Most unfavourable results are met with a boorishness that goes so against the very grain of sporting clashes. As officials go about queering the pitch by taking it all to legal and technical tangles, it's amusing that they should refer to Fifa at the drop of a hat even as they continue to thumb their noses at the time-tested conventions laid down for the good conduct of the game.

It is not about the clubs or their heritage - and no one can take that away from them - but the quality of their governance that needs to be focused upon. It's more about the officials, and their nonchalance in holding the game to ransom. They need to get better at administration which leads to quality on the pitch than be good at crisis management arising out of irresponsible acts. The well-being of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan is just not about giving their legion of supporters a fair deal. It's also about keeping intact one of the most enduring symbols of Indian football.

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