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This fixture is every Indian footballer's dream. Don't crush it
Can football as an institution survive without rivalries? Are passion and tension, vibe and verve among supporters of two clubs conducive or detrimental to the game's progress?
Such questions flashed in my mind during the I-League's Kolkata derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal at the Salt Lake Stadium on Dec 9.
I didn't take part in the match but I was at the stadium as a member of Mohun Bagan squad. About one lakh spectators provided an excellent atmosphere for good football between two traditional rivals. But what should have been an occasion to remember, was hijacked by a small minority of spectators, turning it into violent fan fury which forced Mohun Bagan to withdraw after the first half.
My sympathies are with my teammate Syed Rahim Nabi who was injured by a missile hurled from the stands and had to be operated on. He will be out of action for over a month.
All this takes me back to my first season as a senior player when I joined Mohun Bagan from the Tata Football Academy in 1996-1997. We were playing in the local league at the club ground and trailing 0-1 to our opponents in the first half. As we were returning to the dressing room during the break, an angry fan spat on me. It was a great culture shock. We had not been taught these things at TFA. Yet, we came back more determined and beat our rivals 4-1. I also scored a goal. And in a matter of 45 minutes, we were being accorded a heroes' welcome by the fans. Extremism in fans' reaction is unique to all derbies, be it Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal, Real Madrid vs Barcelona or Manchester United vs Liverpool. And nothing seems to have changed between what I am witnessing now and what happened when I had started my career.
In 1996-1997, Indian football was abuzz with Mohun Bagan's Diamond System under Amal Datta sir. Around 120, 000 people came to watch the Kolkata derby. I understand it is a world record attendance for a football match. Although East Bengal had the last laugh in that match, as a Mohun Bagan player it opened my eyes to a whole new world of football. So many people, so much passion and fanfare - that's what a footballer lives and dies for. As a trainee at the TFA, we led a disciplined and quiet life, away from the crowd. From 1992 to 1996, we used to spend two months each year in Germany and the Netherlands for summer training. We also had short trips to Denmark and Norway during that time. Those training programmes at the TFA gave me opportunities to experience first-hand how football was developing in Europe and elsewhere. That was a wonderfully promising batch from TFA. The likes of Rennedy Singh, Abhay Kumar, Khaled Jamal, Mahesh Gawli and Lolendra Singh were all talented and capable of playing in Europe. But opportunities for us were limited and money was a serious constraint too. Kolkata being the hub of Indian football became our main option at that time. Now, look at the eyes of Subrata Paul, Sunil Chhetri, Mehtab Hossain and you will see in them the seeds of a different dream. Things have now changed for better. Money and sponsors have come into Indian football. The paycheques of Okolie Odafa or Tolgay Ozbey may now be fatter than what Brazil's World Cup winner Rivaldo used to earn at Sao Paulo (in 2011 before his retirement). Players have also become more professional and they are not afraid of trying their luck abroad. Subrata, Mehtab and Gourmangi have already gone for trials overseas and a number of youngsters are ready to follow the same route. With the balance of power having shifted to Goa, Kolkata no longer offers the best career option for today's players.
The truth is that over the years, spectators have deserted stadiums elsewhere in the country. However, with the wisdom and experience of having survived the intensity of playing the game at top level for more than a decade, I have noticed a subtle change in football crowd in Kolkata. This generation of fans lives on watching live international football on television. They are aware of world football, and they expect to see a similar standard in this city's grounds. That's why they come to the stadium. I saw quite a number of women among the crowd at the Salt Lake that day. It's a good sign for Indian football because it is evident that a football culture is developing at home. Yet a tiny minority of fans - uneducated in football - for whom good football is not paramount, but only that their club should not lose, can mar the whole atmosphere.
The derby in Kolkata is still something to savour, and nurture. Like the golden goose. But, with poor amenities for the spectators, inadequate security and unreasonable fans, as was on display during at the Kolkata derby, we are ony killing the goose.
(Former India striker Dipendu Biswas has played for Kolkata's Big Three - Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting - in a decade-long career. He spoke to Nilesh Bhattacharya)
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