CHENNAI: Football in the country has existed much before the cash-rich Indian Super League came into existence. India's premier footballing competition, the National Football League (now defunct) has traditionally been dominated by two Kolkata clubs — East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
But after the All India Football Federation, in an effort to professionalise the event started the I-League, the powers of Kolkata clubs have been on the wane. It has been a case of so near, yet so far for East Bengal.
Under the stewardship of Englishman Trevor Morgan, the Red and Golds finished runners-up in 2011 and 2012. Despite financial troubles, East Bengal have managed to remain consistent.
Qualifying for the continental competitions for the most number of times (8), the club did the country proud by becoming only the second club in India (after Dempo) to reach the semifinals of the AFC Cup in 2013. Traditionally, the club has excelled in international events. Arguably, the greatest hour in the club's history came in 2003 when they beat BEC Tero Sasana to win the ASEAN Club Championship.
But the new generation of stars has to prove that the club is not only about the past. After arch-rivals Mohun Bagan clinched the I-League last year, the Red and Gold brigade will be desperate to topple their neighbours.
It has been a new dawn at the club with officials appointing a Bengali coach, former India forward Biswajit Bhattacharya. And the man at the helm has not disappointed. East Bengal claimed a record breaking sixth Calcutta league crown. It might not be of much significance in the larger scheme of football related things in the country, but for the club's millions of fans it was a moment to cherish. More so as en route Hexa, they dismantled Bagan 4-0 in the Kolkata Derby in front of a packed Yuva Bharati Krirangan.
The club has always attracted the best talent throughout the country. Bhaichung Bhutia, arguably India's most popular footballing icon, came into the national consciousness after his stint with East Bengal.
But it is not easy for foreigners to come and play in the City of Joy. Kolkata football is an acid cauldron for most players. Media frenzy and fan pressure in the city can only be rivalled by scenes in top European leagues. Just ask the likes of highly rated Scottish star Alan Gow (who plays for St Mirren in the Scottish top flight) or New Zealand World Cup star Leo Bertos.
But the club has outdone themselves this year. After playing a starring role for Chennaiyin FC in the ISL, Frenchman Bernard Mendy (formerly with PSG, Hull City) has been roped in to add some much needed steel at the back.
The club has not started the I-League season in the best possible manner. Currently lying third in the nine-club competition, Bhattacharya will be eager to correct the wrongs and add to the club's list of glories. He has made winning the I-League his primary objective this season. The side has a wealth of talent with the likes of India stars — Arnab Mondal, Harmanjot Singh Khabra and foreign stars like Ranti Martins (highest goalscorer in Indian football) and South Korean Do Dong-hyun.
Future of football in India is in turmoil. With talks of I-League and ISL being merged doing the rounds, 'Lal-Holud' will be desperate to achieve success before the union happens. The club, whose emblem is of a burning torch has a famous slogan which the fans keep shouting during the team's matches. “Moshal Jolche, Jolbe” (the torch has been burning and will continue to burn).