Asia’s oldest league, the Premier Division A of the Kolkata Football League kicked off on 3 August with 12 teams competing in the apex tier. It is one of the oldest in the world and commenced in 1898 with only eight British regimental or civilian teams participating.
Indian club teams were permitted only in 1914. Way back in 1934, Mohammedan Sporting made history by becoming the first Indian team to win the prestigious Calcutta league and also the first to win in their very first year.
Till the end of the 20th century, there was immense glamour and prestige in winning the Kolkata league. It was a like a football festival, which commenced in the last week of May and continued till end of August or early September.
There would be sixteen teams in the Premier division and matches were played on a home and away basis. In September the IFA Shield commenced and concluded just before the Puja festivities commenced. The four month long football fiesta was an integral part of Kolkata life and folklore.
They heyday of the Calcutta league was from the 1930s till the 1970s. Fans thronged the make shift stands at the Maidaan, left early from offices and skipped family functions to witness their favourite teams. The excitement reached a crescendo when the Big Three clubs had bought star players. They were first seen in the Calcutta League.
So when East Bengal fielded outstation recruits Syed Nayeemuddin, Mohammed Habib, Mohammed Afzal and Gurkripal Singh against Sporting Union in 1966, there was a capacity crowd and thousands waited outside to get a glimpse of their heroes.
The league has now lost its sheen, even though the winners get Rs 25 lakh and the runners up Rs 20 lakh. East Bengal, are the reigning champions having won the competition a record eight times in a row from 2010. But this unique achievement does not arouse the fervour of the 1970s, when East Bengal won for six years in a row.
Before the start of the 1975 season, the city was abuzz with excitement that would East Bengal break Mohammedan Sporting’s record of five successive Calcutta league titles from 1934 —1938. To prevent this happening Mohammedan Sporting secured the services of the famous brothers Habib and Akbar for the season, with lucrative payment.
But East Bengal’s coach, P.K. Banerjee played a master stroke. He got Shyam Thapa to leave Mafatlal Mills, Bombay and join East Bengal. The way politics and football inter-mingled in Calcutta was aptly seen in some of the political demonstrations in 1975.
Large numbers of Youth Congress supporters paraded through the streets chanting that former Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi had unveiled a 20 point programme for the country but East Bengal’s one point programme was the acquisition of striker Shyam Thapa, then at the peak of his powers.
He was welcomed back to Calcutta like the return of the prodigal son. He was so popular that even in political rallies East Bengal fans took his name. They felt he was the promised Messiah who would lead them to their holy grail of a sixth Calcutta League title. Many of these Youth Congress supporters were also ardent East Bengal fans. So in their slogans politics and football got intermingled....