East Bengal and its prospects this season
Can East Bengal light up the fire that has lost fuel?
East Bengal is a name that is referred to as a legacy club and often called the "Boro Team" in the Kolkata Maidan dialect. Players from the relatively smaller teams look up to putting up a good show against the big two as that can make your career in the long run and if all cards are in one's favour one can also be called up to play for one of them, but these are challenging times for the legacy clubs with the onset and popularity of the Indian Super League. Now playing for the legacy clubs has become a second fiddle option for the players and this, in turn, has been a cause for a big headache for the big two of Kolkata.
East Bengal has been the Calcutta League Champions for the last seven years but in truth, these seven years have been a part of an anguish and agony of 14 years in which the coveted I-League has eluded the Red and Gold brigade, something which is a thorn for the millions of supporters of the club all around the globe.
In the last few years, a thing that East Bengal had in its favour was a set squad of Indian players who had been together for around 4-5 years. However, this season has been different given most of the squad from last season decided to join the Indian Super League. As a knock-on effect, wholesome changes have had to be made to the squad which could be a blessing or a curse only time will tell.
Even amid this turmoil that has gripped the I-League and its teams this season, East Bengal has a silver lining in the form of player loyalty, manifested in the decision taken by Arnab Mondal, Mohammed Rafique, Cavin Lobo, Gurwinder Singh to stay put at the club and not partake in the cash rich ISL.
For the upcoming season, East Bengal has appointed last season's I-League-winning coach Khalid Jamil and along with him, East Bengal has signed a host of Aizawl FC players - Mahmoud Al Amna, Laldanmawia Ralte, Brandon Vanlalremdika and Lalramchullova. Given their performances in the I-League last season, the Red and Golds can expect fantastic things from Jamil's tried, tested and trusted warriors.
The club's other new signings include Kerela-born goalkeeper Mirshad; defenders Salam Ranjan Singh and Carlyle Mitchell; midfielders Richard Costa, Surrabuddin Mullick and Gabriel Fernandes; and strikers VP Suhair and Joby Justin.
A host of East Bengal Academy graduates who finished runners-up in last season's U-18 I-League has been promoted to the main team - something which is a step in the right direction, dependent on your Academy rather than other clubs for fresh recruits. The players promoted to the senior team this season are defenders Mehtab Singh and Rahul Ghosh; midfielders Yami Longvah, Bidyasagar Singh, Lalchanchima and Prakash Sarkar; and striker T Suranjit Singh.
Among the academy lads, the likes of Yami, Bidyasagar and Suranjit are the ones to watch apart from Mehtab Singh, who featured in the I-League squad for a couple of games last season.
5 Young East Bengal Players To Look Forward to This Season
After the exits of Lalrindika Ralte and Bikash Jairu from the team, Nikhil Poojary will be the main man on the wings this season after an eye-catching I-League last time out. Nikhil turned a few eyeballs due to his work rate and tracking back. Having been called up to the national team camp recently, the youngster's confidence is on the and should put up an even greater show this season.
Anyone who bore witness to the Bordoloi Cup game between East Bengal Presidents XI and ASEB will remember a young lad completely bossing the midfield and his 30-yard strike. Rated highly by Academy coach Ranjan Choudhury, young Yami also impressed ex-coach Trevor James Morgan in the few practice matches against the senior team last season. A box-to-box midfielder in general, Yami can play both as a holding midfielder or an attacking midfielder if the situation arises.
Salam Ranjan Singh
Probably the best signing by East Bengal this season, this young Manipuri defender is rated highly by former Bengaluru FC I-League-winning coach Ashley Westwood and also present Blues coach Albert Roca. Stephen Constantine named him as his U-23 team captain due to his strong character and never-say-die attitude. His determination to make a name for himself and his attitude could be a big plus for East Bengal this season.
This striker-turned-winger from Aizawl FC will be one to look out for. Signed from Aizawl, this young and promising prospect has already been one of the players on whom the East Bengal fans have turned their eyes to. A fleet-footed and nippy winger with loads of pace to burn, Brandon could be a nightmare for opposition defences.
The goalkeeper from Kerala has been making a name for himself in the Kerela football circuit and the famous Kerela 7's football. Highly rated by former India coach Armando Colaco, Mirshad could well turn out to be an asset for East Bengal this season if given time.
Off field factors that are a concern
The ongoing transfer saga of Abhinas Ruidas has the potential to hamper the club and coach's plan although reports suggest even if Ruidas is declared an East Bengal player he will be loaned out to Mumbai City FC for a fee.
All in all, the club getting involved in a controversy like this doesn't do it any good.With a history of poor foreign player selections which include players like Leko and Leo Bertos. Given former player Alvito D'Cunha's failed trip to England (Leeds United to be specific), East Bengal needs to be smart in the transfer market this season or else it will just be a case of history repeating itself.
It all started when the new working committee of UB, East Bengal's principal sponsors, wanted the club to pick up ISL bid papers which the club eventually did but did not submit them after having a discussion with arch rivals Mohun Bagan. That decision from the East Bengal management has not gone down well with the UB board who have now given an ultimatum to the club to reduce its budget from last season, let alone increase it.
East Bengal officials are set to meet the UB honchos in Bangalore to reconsider their decision but given the new working committee is full of new faces, the club official's pleas could very well land on deaf ears. To deal with this issue, East Bengal should try and rope in more c- sponsors, the likes of Gionee and LG's names have been doing the rounds at the club tent and one hopes a deal is done at the earliest or else getting quality foreign players during the transfer window could be a distant dream.
The dilemma of the two leagues
One question that is bothering every Indian football fan this season is debate over the main league of the country? On paper, the AIFF still maintains that the I-League is the premier league of the country and so its winners get the coveted AFC Champions League playoff spot.
That said, the winners of the ISL will get an AFC Cup spot, better coverage and players, all of which leads one to argue that the I-League will play second fiddle to the ISL this season. With rumours emerging that by the 2018-19 or 2019-20 season, ISL and I-League will be merged with around 15-16 teams taking part in a single league to form the main league of the country, the East Bengal hierarchy could very well be in a topsy-turvy situation as to the fate of the I-League.
With clubs like Mohun Bagan and Churchill Brothers openly stating that when an opportunity presents itself they will join the ISL, the East Bengal management has kept a tight lip on the matter and maintained that their prime focus, for now, is the CFL and the I-League. Heineken, who owns 43% shares of UB, wanted the club to participate in the ISL this season itself and even went on to say that the franchise fee would have been paid by Heineken directly.
Given the amount of confusion regarding mergers and sponsors, I just hope the team as a whole which includes players, coaching staff, officials, sponsors and of course the fans keep their head straight and focus on the task ahead, which is, at the moment, to win the CFL and the elusive I-League title.
Given the team Jamil has built this season, I would bet for them to be I-League champions. It's been 14 years since the I-League/NFL trophy entered the Leslie Claudius Sarani and the Red and Golds faithful have been patiently waiting for their reunion with the holy grail. If everything goes to plan, then surely Leslie Claudius Sarani will be painted in Red and Gold and the paper torches (Moshal) will light up the lane to end 14 years of sorrow.