The ISL has always been full of glitz and glamour since its inception. It had managed to attract footballers of repute as well as big name managers to Indian shores. But what it was lacking was a full-blown rivalry between teams, organically built up over the years, to become the headline event of the season. And this year, with the entry of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, the league has added the Kolkata Derby, one of the most storied clashes in global football to its name.
Friday's match will be the first-ever game in the ISL for SC East Bengal and new coach and former Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler will be hoping for a strong start to the campaign. But it will not be easy not only due to the opposition but also due to extraneous factors involved.
The team was late to the party, only managing to enter as the 11th team in the dying moments. As a result, player recruitment also took some time and with the various visa issues and quarantine rules, they have had an even more curtailed pre-season compared to most. And the fact that they are starting the campaign against arch rivals ATKMB will not make things any easier.
"It's an incredibly tough game for us to start. We are massively behind all the teams in terms of preparations. Massively behind in terms of playing games. ATKMB have played a game and we haven't, so we are coming into the season relatively new. But we got a great work ethic, a great team spirit. The players' attitudes are absolutely first class. We can't wait to get started. It's been a long time. We have done all the work. We have come so far and we are ready."
And Antonio Habas, ATKMB manager and a two-time league champion, knows exactly how to win and the team, even though a new entity, has been together for a few years now. Having started with a win against Kerala Blasters, the team will be hoping to get the bragging rights in this famous fixture. But Habas knows the unknown factor of SCEB could prove to be difficult but he focussed on three points.
"We have information about Fowler's last job in Australia with Brisbane (Roar). I had to see their performance, behavior, system and many things but the information we have is little. Maybe it's good that we played a match and maybe it's better for East Bengal because we don't know how East Bengal plays. It's something that we have to accept in a competition. I don't worry. We have to respect all the teams. Maximum respect to all the opponents and play good football."
But the historic fixture will be played without fans, the only sour point in what promises to be a landmark occasion which will add another chapter to this age old rivalry.