THURSDAY, AT THE EAST BENGAL GROUND, Tollygunge Agragami and Southern Samity faced each other that had little bearing on the Calcutta Football League title race, hence remained away from spotlight. Yet as the match unfolded, people in the gallery and the media enclosure started suspecting that something fishy was up. Their suspicion was fuelled when after the match ended, with a 4-0 win for Tollygunge, some Souther Samity officials accused Tollygunge of "breaking the agreement" and taking undue advantage of their trust. The dispute escalated, and after a while, a couple of players from the Tollygunge team visited the Southern Samity camp and "apologised" for the result.
By evening, even as the excitement over Sunday's Kolkata Derby climbed upwards, the gatherings around the tea and fuchka stalls, the laid back conversations at various club tents in the Maidan started having a different undercurrent to it. People spoke in hushed tones, looking around before cautiously uttering the words "match fixing."
The CFL is no stranger to allegations of match fixing. In fact there is ample evidence that paying off smaller clubs to lose matches against big teams was a common practice in the 60s and 70s. For many of the coaches and players plying their trade in these clubs, playing the Big Three were the biggest paydays of the season. But the past three decades there has been a crackdown on such corrupt practices. But still, in the minds of the fans, the memories of those times are still very much alive. Even now, any unexpected match result is almost always viewed with suspicion from one group of supporters or another. But allegations of match-fixing running so deep have rarely surfaced.
As always, corruption in Kolkata football comes with a hint of politics. Football being a popular game, local politicans have always maintained close relationships with the clubs. Many top politicians in the state proclaim themselves to be fans of one club or another, and sit on the managing committees at many clubs. Positive impacts of this relationship with politics are felt often: recently parliamentarians spent a large sum of money from their own allowances for the construction of four natural grass practice football pitches inside the Salt Lake Stadium premises in preparation for the U-17 World Cup 2017. Then, only weeks ago, the chief minister of the state announced that many of the leading clubs will receive monetary grants from the government and Mohun Bagan will get the floodlights on their grounds fixed on government expense; a gift for winning the I-League.
But the negative aspect of the flirtation with politics is having to share its vices. Last year a number of clubs ran into trouble when the chit fund scandal broke out. One of the reasons these chit fund companies invested in Kolkata clubs was that the clubs shared relationships with the same politicians who were involved with the chit funds. It resulted in many clubs' bank accounts being sealed by Enforcement Directorate and high ranking club officials being arrested.
Coming back to Tollygunge Agragami and Southern Samity, here's how the political connection pans out: the president of Tollygunge Agragami is none other than Arup Biswas, acting sports minister of the state. And ex president and main benefactor of Southern Samity is Madan Mitra, the originally appointed sports minister of the state who is in jail for alleged involvement in the Saradha chit fund scam. Both belong to the same political party, have a healthy personal relationship. The two clubs, too, share the same training facilities. Their officials and staff have close ties with each other as well.
Now, Tollygunge Agragami have had a bad start to their CFL campaign. From the beginning they lost match after match and remained in the bottom four, threatened with a relegation to Premier Division B. Rumours started flying around the Maidan that the influential Arup Biswas is about to take matters into his own hands to help Tollygunge avoid relegation. The suspicion of foul play only increased when during their match against Mohun Bagan, the I-League winning club committed a technical mistake in the 90th minute during a substitution. The matter is being reviewed by the IFA but in all likelyhood, Tollygunge will be awarded 3 points from the match, despite losing it 3-1. Many prominent people in the Maidan, including ex India and Mohun Bagan player and coach Subrata Bhattacharya, alleged that the mishap was pre-meditated. Both clubs denied the allegations.
But things went to a different level as Tollygunge Agragami and Southern Samity locked horns. It is being alleged that Southern Samity agreed to lose the match 1-0 to help Tollygunge avoid relegation. To make sure that happens, Southern Samity benched most of their first team players. Their number one striker was "rested due to injury" even though he has not missed a single practice session and does not appear to be hurt. Even their coach was conspicuously absent; many are alleging he received a phone call from the officials asking him not to come to the match. During the game, people in the stands were shouting their suspicion of a fixed match, as the Southern Samity defenders made a number of unnecessary back passes and clearances in spite of being down by a goal. Officials and staff of both teams did not initially complain about the proceedings.
But things went wrong when taking advantage of the weak team selection Tollygunge Agragami scored 4 goals in their very first win in 8 matches, not counting the technical victory they might be awarded against Mohun Bagan. But with 6 points already in their pocket (and 3 more to be awarded), their Tollygunge suddenly saw their CFL campaign turn right around. The club now has a good shot at avoiding relegation if they win the next 2 matches.
But some of the Southern Samity officials lost cool and yelled at their Tollygunge counterparts. One official was heard saying,
"Four nil defeat is a shame. How could they betray our trust like this? How are we going to show our faces back home now?"
There were enough people within earshot. Spectators and members of the press immediately cornered officials and players about what was going on. They refused to answer any questions and chaos ensued. Newly appointed Tollygunge Agragami coach Subhash Bhowmick made a futile attempt at calming things down by saying,
"Our boys played well, that's why we won by such a great margin. I don't know about anything else. There's nothing else going on."
But the allegations did not die down and by the end of the day things had reached IFA. The state's football governing body took it slow as the issue exploded in the media over the next day. The official match report makes no mention of the issue, and no complaints alleging match fixing have been submitted to the IFA so far. But the issue is not dying down and it might ultimately force IFA to make an inquiry into the matter at least. IFA Secretary Utpal Ganguly hinted to the press yesterday that both the clubs may be called in to explain the matter. It is yet not clear whether any official case will be opened against them.
With the IFA clearly dragging their feet, it seems entirely unlikely that any of the clubs involved will be found guilty and face punishment. And this only goes on to show how deep the rabbit hole of corruption goes in Kolkata football. The Calcutta Football League, once the prime tournament of Indian football, has seen a resurgence in popularity over the last few years and the IFA, their TV broadcaster as well as the clubs have come out with proclamations of adopting professionalism to make the league more polished and attractive. But in spite of all that the fans are constantly faced with shameful occurences like this, that tears down the facade of apparent progress and exposes just how far there is still to go before Kolkata football can reclaim the prime place in Indian football it once proudly occupied.