THE CALCUTTA FOOTBALL LEAGUE title race, after many twists and turns, is finally reaching its point of conclusion... spurred by actions off the field rather than on it.
The season is trending towards a historic outcome with underdogs Peerless SC rising to the occasion to claim the CFL Premier Division A championship; and minus any more suddent turnaround, it will the first time since 1981 that a club other than East Bengal and Mohun Bagan has won India's longest running league; and the first time since 1958 that a club other than Kolkata's big three (East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting) has claimed the coveted crown.
On Sunday, the CFL title race was scheduled for a thrilling photo finish with 3 clubs still in title race - East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Peerless - playing simultaneous matches to determine the outcome.
Peerless won their match, beating George Telegraph 2-0 with their star striker Ansumana Kromah scoring a brace.
Mohun Bagan, in their match, beat Kalighat MS 3-0. But due to heavy waterlogging at the East Bengal Stadium, the match between East Bengal and Calcutta Customs had to be abandoned and referred for rescheduling.
This left Mohun Bagan (20 points from 11 matches) out of the title race and positioned Peerless, who finished their campaign on 23 points from 11 matches with a goal difference of +13, with a prime claim to the title.
East Bengal (on 20 points from 10 matches with a +7 Goal Difference) still had the chance to win the title if they beat Calcutta Customs by 6 goals on the rescheduled matchday.
The Indian Football Association (West Bengal) moved quickly to resolve the matter, deciding to hold the East Bengal vs Customs match on 3rd of October at the Kalyani Stadium. The matter was of pressing urgency since Calcutta Customs, a small budget team, were running out of most of their player contracts on 30th September; and contract extensions were going to drive them well over their budget if the match was not re-scheduled immediately.
IFA have handled the matter of rescheduling with a level of expertise this season. Earlier, the match between East Bengal and BSS Sporting also had to be postponed due to rain, which was played just 8 days later.
But at this critical juncture the East Bengal disagreed with the arrangements. The club officials told IFA that their head coach Alejandro Menendez had given the players some days off ahead of the Durga Puja, and they would only be able to play the match if it was scheduled after 20th October. Given the budgetary constraints of Calcutta Customs and the need to conclude the league well ahead of the start of I-League and ISL, the IFA declined to push the match that far back. East Bengal, in turn, said that they would not turn up to play the match in Kalyani on 3rd October.
However, there were rumours late in the morning that East Bengal indeed would field a team of 7 first team players and some reserves to play out this match. Accordingly, the Customs team, referees and IFA officials showed up at the pitch, waiting for East Bengal to arrive. But the Red and Golds were nowhere to be seen.
This is likely to be declared as a walkover win for Calcutta Customs (3 points with a 3-0 scoreline on the record); as it was in 2016 when Mohun Bagan pulled out of its match against East Bengal over a dispute with IFA about ticket revenue sharing. But any decision will not be officially taken by IFA until the state governing body meets on 10th October.
But at this point it's safe to say that Peerless, led by former Aizawl FC head coach Jahar Das, have likely won the league for the first time in the club's history and cemented their place in Indian football history.
This is, to some extent, a repeat of history. In 1958, when Eastern Railway won the league, East Bengal had handed them a walkover win to make sure Mohun Bagan did not win the title. This time, the triumph of Peerless also came with an East Bengal no-show attached to it, although under very different circumstances.
The Red and Golds, who have won the CFL title a record 39 times, have their sights trained on the upcoming I-League 2019-20 and used the CFL mostly as a testing ground for their squad. The way Alejandro Menendez and the club officials unceremoniously abandoned their CFL title quest near the finishing line suggests that they do not treat the local league with as much importance as the club once used to.
This however does not take away from the achievement of Peerless SC, who formed a squad with former regular players of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, and exceeded everyone's expectations by beating the odds to win the league. Jahar Das, who has delivered big on the national stage before with Aizawl FC's remarkable campaign in Federation Cup 2016 where they beat heavyweights Bengaluru FC and Sporting Clube de Goa to reach the grand finale before going down to Mohun Bagan.
The Peerless SC players will be ceremoniously presented with the CFL trophy at IFA's annual conference. But for now, their players and management can finally begin to fully enjoy the fruits of their hard labour, with the final confirmation of their triumph.
Their campaign, which includes wins over major CFL sides like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bhawanipore, will remain as one of the rarest examples of a completely underdog side dominating the giants; a sight that has not been seen in the Calcutta Football League in over six decades.