Mohun Bagan is all set to move away from I-League next season with the 130-year-old club taking its heritage along to a tournament where the combined age of all the teams doesn’t even make up for half that number.
The oldest club in the country will feature in the Indian Super League rechristened as ATK-Mohun Bagan with former ISL champions ATK owning an 80 percent stake in the outfit. While it doesn’t change the ISL schedule, given there are no new teams getting added on to the roster, I-League will lose the legacy that the Kolkata giant brought to the table.
Ever since the club was formed in 1889, Mohun Bagan have been synonymous to football in India.
From being just a club for young Bengalis to assemble and play football, cricket and athletics, to using it as a platform against the then British government, Mohun Bagan has a history that transcends more than just one discipline.
‘The Barcelona of India’
“Because of 1911 IFA Shield win Mohun Bagan was a national sentiment. It was part of the nationalist movement. So, there was this sort of aura of aristocracy about Mohun Bagan,” football expert Novy Kapadia recalls. “They were looked up to. They were sort of the Barcelona of India.”
That class and sheen may have been smudged over the years owing to the quality of football that’s gone spiralling down when compared to rest of Asia, but the sentiments and emotions involved with the club remains. Back in the 1930s, playing for Mohun Bagan was different than playing for any other club.
They had an all-Bengal side — unthinkable these days given foreigners outweigh local talents — and had principles that are hard to emulate. It’s said, if one failed in school or college, he automatically got disqualified from playing for Mohun Bagan.
“Mohun Bagan many people don't know was like Yorkshire (club) in cricket. They never recruited a foreigner till the first foreigner to pay for them was Chima Okorie in 1990,” Kapadia says.
“Other clubs had started taking in foreign players, Mohun Bagan refused. Mohammedan (Sporting) had Majid (Bishkar), Jamshed (Nassiri), East Bengal had Chima, Chibuzor, Christopher, but Mohun Bagan never took a foreign player.”
An Array of Superstars
However, a reason for being stubborn could have been their tradition in itself. Besides home-grown players, Mohun Bagan always had an array of Indian superstars who led them from the front. From the pioneers like Gostha Pal, Sailen Manna, Shibdas Bhaduri to Chuni Goswami and Shyam Thapa to name a few, Mohun Bagan have always had Indian players leading the charge from the front.
“Shyam Thapa, the reflexes he had in the box were absolutely amazing. I don’t think anyone, not even Bhaichung Bhutia, comes anywhere near Shyam Thapa. Chuni (Goswami) was arguably the greatest ever player seen in India,” Kapadia said.
"“Chuni (Goswami), PK Banerjee, (Tulsidas) Balaram. Nobody came near them, they were a class apart. It’s like talking about (Lionel) Messi, (Cristiano) Ronaldo and Neymar as far as Indian football is concerned.”" - Novy Kapadia, football expert
“Subrata (Bhattacharya) was brilliant. He used to come out of the box like a Franz Beckenbauer. He could control a ball in mid-air with his instep, set up attacks; (he was) a little slow but he was an outstanding defender. Temperamental, hot headed, but total committed (sic) to Mohun Bagan,” Kapadia added.
From Lev Yashin to Pele to Roger Milla
The green-and-maroon brigade’s illustrious history also includes playing against a few top names of the world. In 1955, the USSR had come down to India for a diplomatic tour and beat Mohun Bagan 3-0.
Legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin was part of that squad. In the club’s centenary celebrations in 1990, Cameroonian superstar Roger Milla took part in an exhibition match and was part of an assembled team named Diamond club.
As recently as in 2008, Mohun Bagan even played against Bayern Munich in a match that featured German legend Oliver Kahn.
However, the highlight was when Pele graced the pitch against the Mariners in 1977.
“It was absolutely remarkable. Pele himself didn’t know about Indian football. He was stunned, overwhelmed by the support. Shibaji Banerjee played very well in goal and Mohun Bagan drew 2-2. It was a rainy ground, Pele was a bit hesitant, he didn’t play all-out, but still it was a top-class team,” Kapadia added.
The Bengali Brazilian
In the late 1990s, once Mohun Bagan got rid of their stringent policy of fielding just Indians, several top stars donned the iconic jersey.
While teenagers of today’s era would relate with the likes of Sony Norde, Okolie Odafa or Katsumi Yusa, if there’s one foreign name that several generations of Mohun Bagan fans chant even till date, it has to be that of Jose Ramirez Barreto.
The highest goal-scorer in the history of the national league among foreigners, Barreto’s magical feet, coupled with his lethal accuracy inside the box, made him a talismanic forward.
Kapadia, too, picks him as the greatest foreigner to play for Bagan albeit the great Chima Okorie ends up a close contender.
“Chima is arguably the best scorer, the striker. But limited player. I mean he could bulldoze his way through. But overall commitment is Barreto. Jose Ramirez Barreto, I mean, is practically a Bengali Brazilian,” Kapadia says.
"“The other player who I have liked a lot, who helped Mohun Bagan win their first I-League title was Sony Norde. Absolutely magical on the left flank and totally committed. Sony Norde used to say ‘I’ll give a bonus from my pay packet, let’s win titles’.”" - Novy Kapadia, on Sony Norde‘ISL Realised It’s Sitting on a Gold Mine’
Fans in Kolkata, however, are going to be at a loss for a while though. Or at least, until East Bengal join their arch-rivals in the ISL.
Those who are well-acquainted with the fanaticism about the rivalry between the two clubs know it isn’t just the derby that keeps the fans on the edge of their seats. Mohun Bagan could afford to even finish 10th on the table, if East Bengal finishes a rank lower. And, vice-versa.
The Kolkata derby has always been the go-to fixture on the Indian football calendar.
“It's our fault that we have not been able to market this match. I think ISL has finally realised that you are sitting on a gold mine with better marketing and greater reach of social media. This match on a Sunday 7pm will have millions glued. Indian football means Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal,” Kapadia concluded.
It isn’t the first time that football clubs have merged to come as one. Like in the case of Mohun Bagan, who had been struggling with funds and resources for quite some time, there have been quite a few European clubs as well who have had to join hands to stay afloat.
From European giants like PSG, Benfica, and AS Roma to Premier League side Watford, the trend has always been there. How it pans out for the maidan giants, however, remains to be seen.
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