Cloud nine to cloud of suspicion: promising CFL ends, mired by fixing rumbles
IT COULD HAVE BEEN a memorable game of football, an unlikely heroic tale to wrap up the Calcutta Football League season with. It could have been one of those rare occasions when a rich narrative could be spun around the players of a team whom no one gave a chance, but managed to finish above the Champions of India. There was a potential family drama angle too: the team coached by the father gets saved from relegation by the team coached by the son. It was prime material for a classic underdog story. But it wasn't going to turn out that way.
Although IFA isn't too eager to look into the matter, the allegations of blatant match-fixing against Tollygunge Agragami in the match with Sothern Samity have not died down. Then there was the incident of them being awarded 3 points against Mohun Bagan courtesy a technical error from the Green and Maroons (there was no registered U-23 player on the pitch for the last 5 minutes). Now, while it was expected that Mohun Bagan would be docked the 3 points they won from the game, but a large section of the Maidan was against giving those 3 points to the opponent team, saying it would make match-fixing easier for miscreant clubs. Many in the IFA's top panel of advisors were against it, but IFA went on and gave those points to Tollygunge anyway. The move only fuelled the rumours that being the team of the acting sports minister of the state, Tollygunge are being given heavy help under the table to avoid relegation. If the grapevine was anything to go by, Tollygunge was arranging for their match against Aryan to be a draw, so that they could avoid relegation, sending Police AC to the lower tier instead.
But Aryan coach Rajdip Nandy created a lot of pre-match buzz with some hot statements. As the coach of an underdog club he was facing the opportunity two earn two achievements. Beating Tollygunge would send Aryan to 3rd position in the league table; above Mohun Bagan, which would be a prestigious feat in iteself. It would also save Police AC, the club managed by his father Raghu Nandy, from a relegation to Premier Division B. Rajdip's statements to media before the game had no shortage of intent.
But once the match began things it became apparent that the match was going in a particular, mutually convenient direction. Players were only interested in passing the ball to each other around the midfield, hardly ever venturing into the other half with it. And when one team was controlling the ball the opponent players were surprisingly content to hang back and let them keep possession, bar a few feeble tackles and interceptions here and there. The handful of times a team made it into the opponents' penalty box, they did not shoot towards the target. Instead, multiple times the strikers sent a back pass to their teammates despite having an open shot at the goal from close range. The sight of a goal kick was extremely rare.
The few hundred fans who had paid money to attend this match out of pure love for football started leaving the stadium halfway through the second half. Raghu Nandy, present in the gallery, remained stoic throughout the 90 minutes and speaking to media afterwards, denied having any suspicion of match-fixing.
Even the IFA is hardly taking any interest in the widespread allegations of Tollygunge paying off teams to gain necessary points to save themselves from relegation. The Bengal football governing body's general secretary Utpal Ganguly told media that just because a match has produced a certain result does not make it suspect of any foul-play. The collective effort of the footballing establishment seems determined to bury these unpleasant rumours and move on rather than addressing them and taking steps towards reforming the oldest running football league in the country.
The whole episode makes for an unseemly end to this year's top tier Calcutta Football League. Although it could have been different. The competition actually saw a remarkably bright start as the television-fuelled revival in CFL's popularity over the past few seasons continued this year as well. There was some extra glamour thanks to East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting playing some of their home games in their own grounds after years of outsourcing them to Barasat and Salt Lake. The matches saw high turnouts even on weekday afternoons. There were rains and mud and signs of a nostalgic return to the old days of glory. East Bengal were unstoppable in their quest for a history-repeating sixth straight CFL title. Football was making headlines again for all the right reasons.
But the dark clouds returned when clubs, players, coaches as well as the IFA compromised all their core values to go out of their way to ensure Tollygunge Agragami, the club belonging to a powerful politician, survived relegation. And whatever unfolded since has come to form the new bottom line of the season. Not a return of glory. Not a historic feat. But another blatant display of the moral bankruptcy prevalent throughout the Maidan, where politics and secret deals continue to manipulate the game of football to satisfy their selfish intersests, with little protest and zero consequences.