Thursday, June 08, 2006

The day the football died

No, it did not happen in a day. The death has been a slow one. And no, globally the game of football is not dead in most places. It is doing better than ever. Alive and kicking. But Bengal's football and Bengali passion about it died in the eighties. An eyewitness account of that tragic death follows.

I am not quite sure what the opening scene of my nostalgic Bengali football film will be, but the soundtrack will definitely have the line: Mohun Bagan maatth theke Ajay Basu bolchhi (Ajay Basu speaking from Mohun Bagan football ground) somewhere in it. Even today that one line uttered in a resonant voice on Calcutta A station (Medium Wave: Frequency 657, Meters 456.6) from those pre-DoorDarsharn days evokes a lot of happy memories of excitement and apprehension. Even after DoorDarshan, with a logo
that uncannily resembles a football, had started broadcasting the major football matches and some friendly kid's rich dad had finally managed to purchase the first Sonodyne B&W TV set of the neighborhood, one had to fall back to good old All India Radio for the minor matches. That one line would also reveal everything you ever needed to know about a Bengali: religion (hint: not Mohammedan Sporting Club ground), on which side of a fateful 2216 kms line their grandparents grew up (hint: not East Bengal ground) and consequently the most important bit - their epicurean preferences. Life was simple back then. Bengali families with both ghoti and bangal members were not unheard of, but the frequency of such anomalies was as greatly exaggerated as reports of Mark Twain's death were. However, the reports of manslaughter and suicides in those hybrid families during and after a Mohun Bagan-East Bengal match were entirely accurate.

Calcutta football was not just about the three big clubs. Clubs like Aryans, George Telegraph, Eastern Railways, Port Trust, Tollygunge Agragami and Bally Protibha played a very important role in a vibrant football scene: grooming budding talent, providing jobs to footballers and coaches, stimulating fan following in villages, small towns and offices and snatching those occasional but all-important points from the big three. The Mohun Bagan-East Bengal League match, however, was the D-day - the unofficial final match in a round robin Calcutta League of twenty-odd teams. Quite often both of them would make it to the finals of national knockout tournaments like IFA Shield, Durand Cup, Rovers Cup and Federation Cup as well. Those were the days when streets of West Bengal suburbs and villages would be empty and stores would drop shutters hours before the match started. Flags were bought and Abir leftovers from Dol (Holi) were dug out in eager anticipation. During the match, one could hear the commentary in any part of a town even when they were not carrying a radio with them. In those pre-Jubo-Bharati-Krirangan days in Calcutta, more people would gather outside the Mohun Bagan and East Bengal Maidan grounds than what could fit inside the stadium. With pocket radios turned on at full volume and held right next to their eardrums, they would excitedly wait for those four magic letters: g-o-a-l. Which side scored that illusive goal would determine the price of Ilish and Chingri maachh for next several days. As George Bernard Shaw wisely noted, a Ghoti and his Fish are intricately tied. For me, a die-hard Mohun Bagan supporter but a closet Ilish fan, a Mohun Bagan victory brought with it the sweet bonus of Ganga's fresh Ilish at a bargain price.


Folklores of barefoot Mohun Bagan's incredible 1911 IFA shield triumph against the goras, exploits of Samad and Gostho Paul, legendary Mohammedan Sporting team of 1930s, FIFA's refusal to let barefoot Indian team take part in 1950 world cup, India's 1951 Asian Games gold, magic (I mean atrocities) of East Bengal's Panchapandab - Ahmed Khan, Venkatesh, Saleh, AppaRao and Dhanraj - in fifties and Shailen Manna's resolute defense against them, Chuni Goswami's brilliance in sixties, P K Banerjee-Chuni Goswami-Balaram-Journal Singh inspired Asian Games gold in 1962, the creditable fourth place finish in 1956 Olympics and Neville DeSouza's hat-trick, the bronze in 1970 Asiad aroused not only passion, but also a sense of pride and nationalism. Bengali fiction and non-fiction writing by the likes of amazingly gifted Moti Nandy in magazines like Khela, Khelar Asar, and Anandamela reinforced those folklores.

Unfortunately it all slowly fell apart in the eighties. It started with the live broadcast of world cup football and the introduction of Jawharlal Nehru Gold Cup . 1982 was the first world cup broadcast live by DoorDarshan and, in the middle of enjoying Zico's brilliance, Maradona's promise of future greatness, Rossi's opportunism and an epic France-West Germany semifinal - dawned a painfully sad realization: there was a very wide gulf between Calcutta Maidan and the best of world football. The reality was driven home more directly and ruthlessly in the Jawharlal Nehru Gold cup invitational tournament which also started in 1982. Studded with world-cupper studs like Buruchaga, Lazslo Kiss, Fischer, Mikhailichenko, Smolarek, Ramos - honored by a very respectful (WC) next to their names on DoorDarshan screens - those teams started to pummel our gods mercilessly. All of a sudden Bidesh Bose's run on the left wing, Surojit Sengupta's body swerves and the crosses from the right wing, Krishanu Dey's dribbles, Sishir Ghosh's headers and Prasun Banerjee's left-footed free-kicks lost their magic. And a year later, on the same Sonodyne set, we watched eleven Indians performing a new magic at Lord's and suddenly transforming a leisurely game of rich and elitist Indians into a national obsession. The world of Calcutta football was never quite the same again.

"To think of football as merely 22 hirelings kicking a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and cat-gut, Hamlet so much ink and paper. It is conflict and art." - JB Priestly

True, but it is a game too - with a winner and a loser. It is not possible to get excited and passionate about a team that always loses, loses big and while losing, does not even look like playing the same game as the best in the business is playing. A Bengali did not have to shun his Ray and Ghatak when he discovered Truffaut and Buñuel. He could effortlessly switch between his Tagore and Eliot. But after watching the World Cup, Jawharlal Nehru Gold cup and Indian one-day cricket triumphs on the screens of DoorDarshan, he could never again find the same passion about football.

No, Baichung Bhutiya's brief stint at a third-tier Manchester Bury does not redeem anything. Any Mohun Bagani worth his salt knows that Chuni Goswami had an offer from Tottenham Hotspur in the 60s. He refused because Mohun Bagan back then was much stronger than the Spurs :-) and in Calcutta he was treated like a god - a god mightier than even the great Uttam Kumar. He was also a decent Ranji player, but never wanted to improve his cricket and make it to the national side because cricket was not important enough. So after breaking his knee while playing football, when a certain teenager decided to switch to cricket in late eighties - it was not only the best career move by a Bengali since Michael Madhusudan and Bankim Chandra gave up writing in English, it also epitomized the end of an era.

36 comments:

Chilla-Bong said...

Dipanjan,Liked your post very much.
The well-written post reminded me of two matches one at Eden Gdns and the other one at Salt Lake.

In match one India team under the supervision of Chirch Millovan had a 58 minutes draw with Bilardo's Arjentina that featured a couple of world cuppers like Burchaga,Batista. Just before the last minute the visiting team scored the goal. After Millovan India never found a decent foreign coach and the national soccer standard curve has been always southward.

The worst humiliation came when PSV Aindovan came to India.After defeated by 10+ goals in 2 matches, just before the 3-rd match Babu Mani (probably India team capt that time) had said if Tatas have so much money why can't they bring two foreign team to play with each other and save us from the disgrace. In the last match in Salt Lake India managed to save its grace by defeated 6-0 . Incidentally Krishanu's dodge in that game that threw two Dutch defenders on both sides was one of the best Indian football action I remember.But then with one-on-one with the keeper he missed the goal.

GREATBONG said...

Lovely, lovely post.

Dipanjan said...

@Chilla-Bong: Thanks. Yes, I remember the Argentina match too. I think even Bilardo came to Calcutta as a coach of the team. It was almost their national side and holding them to 0-0 for most of the game was amazing. Milovan was a great coach. Even in the inaugural Jawharlal Nehru Gold cup, we held South Korea 2-2. Bhaskar Ganguly saved two penalties. Look where South Korea is today.

That PSV series was probably the final nail. Against Bochum at least, one of the matches ended 2-2 with VijayKumar scoring twice.

@GreatBong: Thanks.

Akash said...

durdanto...

bongopondit said...

Like your previous post on Feluda, excellent nostalgic writing. Revives many memories...especially of those afternoons spent listening to the radio - or the anticapitation of an East Bengal-Mohun Bagan match - the euphoria if the former won or the depression if the result was otherwise [ a not so sutble way of saying that I belong to the rival camp :-) ]

In terms of sports commentary in Bengali, Ajay Basu was an icon.

I went to see the Bochum game against IFA XI at Yuva Bharathi....we conceded six goals - after the third goal, crowd was actively cheering Bochum and egging them on to go for half-dozen. Chima Okarie started for IFA and one had faint hopes that the 'foreigner' on the side would help matters (previous games were aginst India XIs) - unfortunately he turned out to be a dud and was benched in the first half itself. The ball crossed the center-line into Bochum territory a couple of times and their goalie got injured through a collision with his own defender !

Last time India played reasonably well was Mardeka Cup '85 (or was it '86) - they fought gallantly against a Czech team for about 110 mins in the semis before conceding the decider. Its been downhill since then.

Dipanjan said...

@Akash: Thanks.

@Bongopondit: Thanks. I will even overlook the East Bengal loyalty - another sign of changed times. Fifteen years ago, I would have promptly deleted the comment :-)

Yes, I remember the Bochum match. For the first time, Chima and Jamshed - two rejects from their national sides but Goliaths in Calcutta Maidan - played for the same team and had raised hopes of an upset. It turned out to be a delusion.

It was the 86 Merdeka cup where India held off the Czech national side till extra time.
http://www.indianfootball.com/data/matchdatabase.html
Krishany Dey scored a hat-trick against Thailand. His premature death is really sad. His lethal combo with Bikash Pnaji used to give us a lot of headaches.

The Quaint Quenyan said...

Phenomenal writing..........however I'd still stick out my head and say that it might not exactly be a case of Indian football plunging to unfathomable depths, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and AIFF notwithstanding. Instead, Indian Football for far too long has been stuck in a vacuum, while the rest of the world has left it far behind.

Dipanjan said...

The Quaint Quenyan: Thanks. I agree other countries, the Asian and African countries in particular, have improved a lot in the last twenty years or so and much of it have to do with using modern facilities, training, diet and medicines. Also in some of those countries, economic growth resulted in more lucrative sponsorship and endorsement deals for the domestic football clubs and the national team. In India, because of a totally inept and corrupt AIFF, almost all of the post-liberalization private sponsorships went into cricket. However, having watched both the eighties teams and the nineties/current team, I think the Indian football standard has not just stagnated, it has gone down.

Shreemoyee said...

That was good. Liked it a lot. Think that reviving football in India, given current conditions will need individual effort and brilliance. Once it looks a lucrative profession again, money will flow, which is twisted logic because it should be the other way round i.e talent found and honed because of the infrastructure effort put by the govt.

Deep said...

Great post Dipanjan.
In the 70s and 80s cricket was the gentleman's game and (at least in Bengal) it didn't have the mass support base football enjoyed. The fun of playing football in a "kaada-makha maath" would never be deciphered by the cricket playing high-brow rich kids.
And how things have changed! Today cricket is our mass game - and believe it or not, football is the more popular choice among the EPL-watching youth in big cities. Only yesterday there was an article - i think in TOI - which talked about how kids in South Mumbai identify less with cricket and more with the Beckhams of the world!

So why does India still perform so miserbaly in football on the world stage when a country with the population of Andheri (a Mumbai suburb) qualifies for the WC? Poor physique is often cited as a reason - all I can say is Chuni Goswami was probably the best dribbler of his era and he had an average physique. This baffles me -granted poor management and infrastructure and all that - but why has talent vanished from the Indian football scene so suddenly?

Dipanjan said...

@shreemoyee: Thanks. I think we'll need private investments to revive Indian football. Vision and long-term planning have never been the strength of government, AIFF or IFA. We need to put together a core group of junior and sub-junior footballers and train them under the best foreign coaches using the most modern training facilities for next 10 years or so. It will take long-term commitment. TFA was a start, but did not quite work out.

@Deep- Thanks. EPL-watching crowd of metro cities will never play the game though, nor will they care much about national football. Being global citizens, they can no longer follow a game played by only ten countries in the world and also contaminated by masses from Jharkhand and Najafgarh. Cricket is no longer a protected shelter for the elites of metro cities and princely states. Besides, brand Beckhams are way cooler, globally.

The future of Indian football like its past is in the villages and suburbs of Bengal, Goa, Punjab, Kerala and North-East. The talents are still out there. The grass-root infrastructure and support system of scouts, coaches, multi-tiered local leagues in villages, districts and offices have collapsed as a result of a lack of success and motivation and it has not been substituted by anything else.

vimal said...

A very, very well written post.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Dipanjan. Liked it very much.

Stone said...

Beautiful post....brought back memories of Shishir Ghosh, Bikash Panji..Pransanta Bannerjee...etc :-)
Ya, I remember that only goal we managed against PSV Eindhoven by 'Chibu-joker' :-)

Anonymous said...

www.worldcupcountries.vze.com

a lot about Indian football

Joy Forever said...

Great post Dipanjan. I'll be waiting for more such stuff.

Rapid I Movement said...

Came via Greatbong's blog. Very well written. Yes, yes, Moti Mondi and Anondomela they all were. But is the situation 'that' bad - as in the level of active participation?

Btw, do you remember this story - "Shingher shongey dourdh" appearing in one of the Anondomela Pujobarshiki-s. I can't quite recall the author's name (it wasn't Moti Nondy) but it was passionate to the hilt and I, well, can't quite imagine a Bengali writing like that on a sport other than football.

Dipanjan said...

@RIM: Thanks. Yes, I'm afraid it is that bad. Active participation has significantly gone down in the last twenty years or so. Take your pick from the usual suspects: cricket, fewer playgrounds, 100 channels on 24/7 TV, increased parental pressure to study hard and succeed in the new economy. The infrastructure around the game in districts and villages - the supply chain of Bengali football - has worsened quite a bit.

"Shinger Shongey Dour" does ring a bell. I think it was published in mid/late nineties. Unfortunately my Anandamela tenure predates that by about a decade.

Is it Debasish Bandyopadhyay, by any chance?

Hiren said...

Comprehensive post.One does hope that India at least participates regularly in the worldcup someday. Somebody said that we should aim to win by 3060AD. It is sad that a population of over a billion people cannot produce sportsmen good enough for the biggest sporting spectacles- Olympics and the football world cup. Ultimately, quality matters.

Rapid I Movement said...

Hya hya...I think it was Debasish Bandyopadhyay - he wrote odd stories. There was another one..."Lichen".

Debashish said...

What an excellent blog-post. Brought back so much happy memories....
thanks
Debashish

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Hai-re said...

Remember, that in one particular match between India and PSV Eindhoven a particular footballer was hit by a freekick taken from atleast 25-30 yards away,and the footballer had to leave the field?This match was played at Salt Lake Stadium. That to me was hilarious.
But even when Pele visted calcutta
football was such a craze.

Smoothone said...

what say about the recent indian victory? the NEHRU cup victory?
plus the loss to Lebanon in the WC qualifiers?
The youth is doing well it seems we have 3 times that our under 16 team has qualified for AFC championships.... but we are not seeing results at the higher level.
we need to improve

Shovon Chakraborty said...

I do not agree with the view that Indian football has gone southwards since the eighties. At least, I can say that, Indian players now have a better footballing sense than the times of players like Babu Mani. The problem lies in the fact that India has not been able to keep pace with the development in other countries.

Smoothone said...

well then tell y is it that in the indian league or the ongc i league its the foreigners ho are scoring not indians!

som said...

its well written, may be there are ups and downs in indian soccer and we have hit the lowest bottom. in 60's we had a great team...but now its getting better..with I-league, with so many foreign coach and brazilians...even look at interest of FIFA...may be things are changing...see here:
http://www.fifa.com/worldfootball/clubfootball/news/newsid=1030909.html#bagan+back+with+bang

never seen an article on FIFA website like this...

anyway, keep us uptodate with ur thoughts too...thanks, som.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where to get the video of the PSV eindhoven match? I would like to see the Krishanu move once again...

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Marcos said...

Well written, it is indeed very sad, when I remember the glory days of football in kolkata. Streets were lined with flags etc. and my ears eager to hear the magical words g.o.a.l which added to the tally of east bengal.

Subhadeep Sengupta said...

That was PSV Eindhoven vs IFA XI in Salt lake stadium...I was then 9 years old. It was the best day of my life till then...PSV had won the european championship last year and before the start of the match, almost 30 footballs were kicked to the gallery. PSV players could kick to the end of the 2nd tier. India lost 4-0, but I saw total football by PSV. Whole 10 players were in India half during attack and in own half during defense. Cheema Okerie got many one on one chance with the world's best goalkeeper Hans Van Brooklyn, but could not score. The whole 120,000 people in the stadium roared when Krishanu dodged 3 dutch defenders, but could not score.....

Shaunak said...

Very well written post. Does anyone remember the year Bochum played at salt lake 86 or 87? Apparently it was their best ever team that reached the German cup final in 1987. They have not reached such heights since.

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Simran Patel said...

Lovely post .thanks for sharing ..the face of football is changing now a days in india..there are best sports club in ahmedabad for football