A decade without a league title, Kolkata clubs continue to go backwards
One of the longest streaks in Indian football is the wait of Kolkata clubs to land a league title and it got extended to a decade as Bengaluru FC clinched the I-League title in their debut campaign on Monday.
For eight of the previous nine years Kolkata clubs have been undone by Goan opposition while on one occasion it was Mumbai’s Mahindra United. This time around Kolkata’s East Bengal could finish the highest among teams from Kolkata and Goa but they will still be second best behind Bengaluru FC.
The success of Bengaluru is actually a big lesson for the Kolkata clubs because the JSW-owned club have achieved it by being professional, a quality which teams from Kolkata continue to lack and are actually going backwards in that respect.
While Bengaluru have set an example for others to follow despite only being formed in July 2013, the same old problems of unprofessionalism, unnecessary interference from club officials in football matters, lack of stability, participation in too many tournaments and lack of balance in squad have been responsible for Kolkata’s failure.
Just like the last three seasons, East Bengal have come the closest again this term but they have actually underachieved as they failed to win the I-League trophy despite having the best squad in the country. Last summer East Bengal got rid of the stability which they had in the previous three consistent seasons as they parted ways with English coach Trevor Morgan and that unnecessary change has turned out to be the main reason for them falling short again.
Brazilian Marcos Falopa, who had very little idea about Indian football, was appointed as the replacement and even before the Brazilian got used to the players and environment in India, he was removed. During his tenure, Falopa did guide East Bengal to the semi-finals of the AFC Cup but pre-season training methods raised question marks as key players were getting constantly injured. The main reason for hiring Falopa was because he was a cheaper option compared to other candidates like Armand Colaco and the club even allowed the Brazilian to have his son Americo to bizarrely function as both the physical trainer and goalkeeping coach.
The four-month tenure turned out to be a disaster and realising their mistake, East Bengal finally hired their original choice Armando. The five-time I-League winning coach likes to play a completely different style compared to Morgan but the squad that he had at his disposal was more accustomed to the system which Morgan used. So once again the club officials decided to form the team and then select the coach, a formula that only highlights the unprofessionalism prevalent at the club.
As a result even the legendary Colaco took time to get the best out of his squad and recognise his best eleven. By the time he managed to do that, East Bengal were already left with too much to do in the title race and fell short. The injuries to foreigners Uga Okpara and James Moga also didn’t help East Bengal’s cause but the club could have easily replaced one of those injury-prone foreigners in the winter transfer window.
East Bengal’s club management however decided not to make any changes, reportedly citing financial reasons and remember this is the same club that midway through the campaign spent a fortune on a concert involving Bollywood stars Akshay Kumar and Sonakshi Sinha to start their centenary celebrations seven years beforehand! The club officials think they have made progress off the field by refurbishing the club tent but in truth they have actually taken a step backwards by once again delaying the start of an academy. The club have been around for 94 years now but still don’t have an academy
The lack of youth development program is a long-term problem of course and is the not reason why East Bengal didn’t win the league this time but the club once again didn’t address the issue of competing in too many tournaments. For example during the I-League break, East Bengal played 12 extra fixtures, in the IFA Shield and local league, than Bengaluru. The same period could have been used by Armando to work with his players and give more time to those carrying injuries to recover.
Also the unnecessary pressure that officials tend to create on the highly-paid players by criticising them in the media for every poor performance doesn’t help the dressing room confidence. One of the big victims of that was Japanese Ryuji Sueoka who was struggling initially as he was being played out of position. Eventually Sueoka showed his class and nearly took East Bengal to the title but losing his self-belief midway through the season didn’t help matters.
So there have been so many factors behind East Bengal’s failure to end the drought and the most disappointing aspect for the fans will be that the reasons are repetitive as the club is not learning from past mistakes.