THE CALCUTTA FOOTBALL LEAGUE is back, and it's undergoing some sea changes.
Played over seven tiers, the CFL is a mammoth enterprise that has been a breeding ground for young talents for decades. Prominent Kolkata clubs use this league to test new players and each others' strengths before they enter the I-League fray. The league's illustrious history is riddled with tales of heroism and intense rivalry that have become a part of India's football folklore.
Over the last decade the CFL was losing its charm, until IFA, the football governing body of West Bengal, struck a new sponsorship and broadcasting deal with Star. Being regularly televised has sparked a resurgence in the single-leg local league's popularity and it's pulling more crowd to the stadiums as well.
But what can be a blessing can also be a curse. Star, being the broadcaster of ISL, are keen on having the CFL wrap up as soon as possible, and their pressure on IFA is what allegedly caused the league's top-tier, the Premier Division, being split into two groups, ensuring that the competition to be over in a month or so, but robbing many of the smaller clubs in the division of an opportunity to test themselves against the big boys. This also means less TV coverage for CFL, as only the matches of Premier Division Group A will be televised.
But that's not to say there are no positives, and there is no denying the attractive packaging of the tournament by Star has led to many of the good changes coming to the league. For starters, there will be new stadiums.
In the last IFA general meeting it was decided that the three major Kolkata clubs, namely East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting will play their matches in their own home grounds. Last season only East Bengal played a couple of matches in their own ground, opting to play the rest in Salt Lake Stadium and Barasat. But with this new arrangements, costs are set to come down. And since all the club grounds are in the Maidan area, well connected to the rest of the city and beyond via train, bus, metro and steamers, it will be much easier for people to attend matches. As for the smaller clubs who don't have their own ground, there are more than a few options on the plate.
Apart from the Barasat and Kalyani stadiums who have hosted multiple CFL and I-League matches in the past few years, a newly renovated Rabindra Sarobar Stadium, an arena at the heart of South Kolkata, has been made available to host matches. The Howrah Football Stadium, too, has gone through a makeover and has been kept as a reserve stadium. The league's major derbies, the three matches between Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting, will be held in three of the bigger stadiums, i.e. Rabindra Sarobar, Barasat and obviously Salt Lake Stadium, the latter of which is also going through a major makeover.
Salt Lake Stadium, the second largest in the world, has had an artificial turf for a while now. But in order to host 2017 U-17 World Cup matches, a new all-natural grass turf is fast in the making. Within the last couple of months, the field turf has been removed, and 3 feet of clay dug up evenly to lay a foundation of stone chips, 10 inch deep. Soil was then added on top and heavily rolled. Right now, dozens of workers are busy planting imported Bermuda Grass on the pitch. The stadium will be ready by the next month and is slated to host the all-important Mohun Bagan - East Bengal clash on 5th or 6th September.
Other kinds of changes are being made as well that will a deep impact in the way football is conducted. For the first time ever, IFA has partnered up with a private hospital chain to provide Health Cards to all participating players. Each of them will go through thorough medical check-ups to look for injuries or conditions that might bring them to harm during matches. There will also be ambulances with advanced facilities present at pitch-side during matches.
This season's CFL is special for two more reasons. Firstly, East Bengal, who won the last 5 editions of the CFL, have the chance to make a double hattrick this time around, a feat they have already achieved once in the 1970s. This makes it a prestiege issue for clubs like Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting and Tollygunge Agragami (who remained in the title race till the last day of the league last season), and they will go to any length to stop the Red and Golds from winning it this time. The second reason is a small step that can have major implications: ISL franchise Atletico de Kolkata have fielded a junior team in the 3rd division. This is the first time an ISL team has ventured outside the IMG-Reliance owned tournament. Optimists are seeing this as an indication that ATK are willing to go the distance and become a full-fledged club that has its own idependent identity. If other franchises follow their footsteps, it will pave the way for ISL and I-League being merged to form one strong full-season national league that fans have wanted for years.
But radical overhauls like that take time, and for the time being it's better to concentrate on making small changes that make the sport that much better. That is what IFA seem to be doing, and it makes this season's CFL an exciting contest to look forward to.