THE FIRST MEETING of the big names of the season became the centre of an unsavoury controversy as the Kolkata Police imposed a restriction on the number of fans that could be at the venue during the Mohun Bagan vs Mohammedan Sporting match, citing security reasons.
While the Barasat Stadium, which was hosting the game, has an official capacity of 16,000 and in practice often holds more than 20,000, due to its unified nature of the stands and lack of proper segregations between rival club fans as well as shortage of availalbe policemen to be on duty at the ground, Kolkata Police initially announced that only 4,000 tickets would be allowed to be put on sale.
This caused a huge furore among both clubs and their fans. Both Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting command large fanbases in the city, and can command a 30,000 strong support on a good day. Mohun Bagan have had the highest average home attendance in the I-League for the last two seasons, while Mohammedan Sporting saw 40,000 of their fans turn up for vocal support in the IFA Shield 2014 final. And this being the first big game of the season (and Mohun Bagan's first match at home since winning the I-League), the hype around the match was through the roof. Suppressing tickets for this match was suicidal, as it has traditionally been the second most popular fixture after the East Begal vs Mohun Bagan Kolkata Derby.
The clubs issued statements condemning the restriction. They pointed out that their registered members alone outnumbered the number of tickets that would be made available to them. Mohun Bagan has over 9,000 members while Mohammedan Sporting has around 3,000; and if only 4,000 tickets were made available, each club would get only 2,000 tickets to sell to their fans. That meant there were not enough tickets to accomodate all the club members, let alone the thousands of match-going fans who are not members.
Fans of both clubs went to the IFA office to protest the small number of tickets. They accused the police of treating football like a law-and-order situation rather than an integral part of the city's sporting culture. They pointed out that the Mohun Bagan vs Mohammedan Sporting fixture, unlike East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan, does not have a particularly violent history, especially in the last two decades.
After a lot of criticism in the media, the Police decided to increase the number of tickets to 6,100. Even this figure was miserably short of the demand for tickets. Mohun Bagan, saying 3,000 tickets was not enough to accomodate all their members, boycotted their quota. This created a situation where it became uncertain whether any Mohun Bagan fans would be able to attend the match. Some Mohun Bagan fans gathered at the IFA office on Friday hoping to pick up some tickets for themselves but IFA refused to sell tickets directly to fans. At this point a rare incident of solidarity between Kolkata football clubs occured; Mohammedan Sporting offered 100 of their own tickets to these Bagan fans. Subir Das, one of the fans present at IFA office, recounted the incident:
"We were there since afternoon hoping to secure some tickets for ourselves. But IFA refused to sell and it led to heated arguments. Right about then some Mohammedan Sporting officials showed up to register a few players. Among them was Bilal da. When he heard of the situation he talked to his club management and arragend for some tickets to be sold to us. He treated us really well and immediately wanted to help us out."
On Saturday, Mohamemedan Sporting opened a counter on their club tent to sell their quota of tickets. They sold out within a couple of hours and the waiting queue was still long when they ran out. Scores of fans left disappointed, without a chance to support their team on the first day of the season.
The stand-off between Mohun Bagan and IFA continued till Saturday evening, when the club accepted a middle ground: they would allow IFA to open a counter at their tent and sell tickets, but the club officials would not take part in the process. When the news spread, a large number of fans showed up at the Mohun Bagan tent. They queued up and when the tickets finally went on sale, they collected theirs and had to immediately set off towards Barasat, where the match was taking place later that afternoon. In spite of all this hassle, Mohun Bagan's quota of tickets was sold out in less than two hours.
At the stadium, hundreds of fans showed up hoping to buy a matchday ticket at the stadium's counter as usual. But to their shock they found they were closed. Thousands of local football fans, who could not go all the way to the Maidan to get their tickets early morning then come back again to see the match, were left deprived. Without a local ticket counter, the match became a closed door event for all intents and purposes. At the end of the game, which ended in a 0-0 draw, there were no reports of violence or unsavoury activities orchestrated by fans. But images of two-thirds empty stands were constantly beamed to television viewers across the region.
This is not the first time a football match has been adversely affected by the inadequacy of the Kolkata police. In 2012, they did not properly search the spectators at an I-League Kolkata Derby, which allowed some of the extremist fans to bring in bottles and sticks and start a riot inside the stadium, leading to more than 40 being injured. The police responded not by offering better security, but reducing the crowd to 25,000 on the return leg.
Over the years they have caused many CFL and I-Legue matches to be postponed or rescheduled because they did not have enough personnel to provide security at the venue. Last season a couple of East Bengal's home matches were played behind closed doors because police refused to grant them permission to sell tickets on similar grounds. At a time when Indian football is taking steps towards increasing professionalism and CFL is a brand on the rise with popularity increasing each year, incidents of this kind send all those efforts a few steps back, and the brand of the tournament suffers a blow. Unless Kolkata police reverse this policy of apathy towards football and decide to support the sport, occurences of such sort will keep holding Indian football back.