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Notional Goa-Bengal rivalry & the truth about Indian football
November 18, 2012
The way India's domestic football season plays out nowadays -- tall, brawny Africans adding flesh and blood to the basic story of a notional Goa-Bengal rivalry -- was foreshadowed in what happened quite sensationally in Kolkata in 1980.
style="font-family: Arial, sans-serif;">A mass exodus of players to Mohammedan Sporting Club had left East Bengal decisively on the mat, face down. They had the playing-from-memory Mohammed Habib and Sudhir Karmakar rejoining them from Mohun Bagan, who were quite happy to part also with Samar Bhattacharjee, then considered but a journeyman defender, and Dilip Palit, whose utility had come to be outweighed by his nuisance value. And so utterly desperate were East Bengal that they had called Palit over after having assured themselves of the coaching services of PK Banerjee: the two had been at daggers drawn in Mohun Bagan right through the previous season.
It was apocalypse now. East Bengal fans had resigned themselves to a prolonged spell of sheer ignominy before the city heard of two Iranians, then studying at Aligarh Muslim University, being roped in to shore up the club's plunging fortune. The better one of the duo, the sturdy Majid Bashkar, had been in the 1978 Iranian World Cup squad: a one-two around midfield and when he retook the ball, there'd invariably be a 30-yard open space conjured up out of nothing in the rival half of the turf. Simple yet terrific. The frizzy-haired Jamshed Nassiri had the instincts of a marksman. He headed the ball very, very well. Still, no one anticipated any miracles.
Kolkata's season stayed unfinished in that year, following a horror league derby at Eden Gardens, when quite a few people died in the stands, but East Bengal had already won the Federation Cup, sharing it with Mohun Bagan, and they went on also to claim the ultimate honours, along with Mohammedan Sporting Club, in the Rovers Cup. In the Mumbai tournament, East Bengal actually defeated Mohun Bagan 2-1. But, most importantly, they didn't lose a game through the year to any Indian team. In the context of 1980, it was an O. Henry ending. Incredible as the red-and-gold brigade's performance was, the point that most people missed at the time, amid all the high-pitch rhetoric attendant upon the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal rivalry, was that, viewed from a slightly different angle, the fact that no Indian club had managed to beat them was a measure and symptom of India's progressive degeneration. Everyone agreed that the Iranians had worked magic but no one wanted even to ask why our worthies hadn't been able to shake off the spell they'd apparently cast.
Football, or rather, the Indian game's requirements, had already begun to be over-simplified, disastrously. Some years later, when Banerjee, not happy with the bunch of boys he then had at his disposal, spoke of height and strength and allied subjects at a post-match Press conference, it was necessary to ask him if he'd have rejected someone like Javier Saviola, the big noise of the moment but no colossal physical presence on the field, if he found himself saddled with him.
Banerjee, rather tetchily, accused yours truly of "trying to sound different" from the others around. Which was why, it was not a little amusing to read the erstwhile stalwart's post-European Championship comments, earlier this year. Spain, he said, had driven it home that football was primarily and ultimately a technical game. It's in the technical nitty-gritty that victory, quite as much as defeat, lies. They'd won because of their polish and their ball-holding skills and determination. If you're always in possession, you allow your rivals no chance. You don't need to be as tall as Dubai's Burj Khalifa; nor does football oblige you to roar and rumble around like a fire engine in an infernal emergency. And, honestly speaking, Spain, right through the tournament, hadn't played half as well as Barcelona at their best.
The question that Indian football would do well to ask itself is: have we ever attempted the finesse that renders brute power redundant and makes football a visual delight? The predictable answer will be very much in the negative because the most important area of football development, catching and grooming 'em young, is also the least thought of in India, tethered as our clubs are to the utilitarianism implicit in the quick-fix. You have, on the one hand, Subrata Bhattacharjee pulling out of a job this year because the club had given him no worthwhile foreigners and, on the other, the national federation failing even to put an end to age-fixing.
It explains why India, with their home-grown talent, slip down the rankings even as the I-League, with its retinue of foreigners, goes on from one unremarkable year to the next on a trip to nowhere. And it's pointless to say that it's the same everywhere: all domestic leagues feature alien elements. Let's not forget about Europe's club academies, certainly not Barca's La Masia, and also consider how strident is the criticism of the contemporary state of football affairs on the continent today when a national team is deemed to have come up short in any sector.
England, the land of the oh-so-telegenic Premier League, recently found themselves short of the sort of goalkeepers that could make for the competitive growth of each. Since not all big names in the game aim at rides on the gravy train, they had some pretty famous people calling a spade a spade. One of them, Gordon Banks, said that the Premier League's foreign influx had destroyed the standards of the country's goalkeeping.
If you are up against it despite academies, what chance do you have in the absence of them?