My first trip to the place of my parents’ birth came in 2000. At 12 years old digesting the surroundings of a place that had been described but never realized in person was not an easy task. My sisters, mother and I went for four weeks to see family and friends around the country.
Meeting close relatives for the first time so late into my life was incredibly strange. The only welcome to India moment I can remember shot for shot is that drive. I acknowledged the imminent prospect of death over 25 times during those five hours. Fun times.
We stayed at my uncle’s house for a few days before making what felt like one thousand visits to both close and distant family members. The majority of the downtime recovering from jet lag was spent playing cricket with my cousins. Growing up Soccer was the sport of my youth. I was aware of the existence of Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne and Brian Lara, but I’d never seen them play. My cousins, like most Indians, were cricket obsessed. Playing, watching, talking – it didn’t matter. It was life.
I became hooked myself, as impressionable 12-year-olds are prone to do. But what struck me was football’s lack of presence in a country so ready to be exploited by the marketing jackals from abroad. EPL games would be shown on Sunday nights, but you needed a special cable package to watch and the vast majority of Indians didn’t have that at the time.
Since then I’ve been back quite a bit. I saw more of the country, traveling south to Tamil Nadhu and north to Delhi, with stops in Rajasthan, Kerela and Bangalore sprinkled in along the way.
Two years ago, in Mumbai via Seoul to see my cousin get married, I flipped through the Times Of India in search of sports news while killing time waiting for my ride. Indian cricket was on a high, still basking in their momentous win at the World Cup. A test match in South Africa was the news of the day. In the far right corner on the back page of the sports section lay a series of scores that couldn’t have been cricket related. What the hell was the I-League?
Goa has always been an outlier in India. No other place in the region is associated with foreigners doing a cavalcade of designer drugs while listening to shitty Diplo remixes. More importantly, though the majority of the nation achieved independence when the British finally said, “fuck it,” and left the sub-continent, Portugal held on to their tiny enclave, refusing to negotiate its release into Indian control. Goa would become an official state of India in 1987, and yet, a national football powerhouse had long been in place.
Durand Cup, IFA shield, Federation Cup — Dempo SC has won them all including the inaugural I-league title in 2007-08. They were the flagship brand of a league looking to change the way Indian clubs approached football — including requirements for professional players (14) and the introduction of a under-19 development teams. Dempo’s long history — the club was founded in 1968 — gave the league a point to pivot from after the National Football League was ditched. The team from Panjim have won three titles in five years. In 2010 club captain Sunil Chhetri left India for the MLS, joining Kansas City and becoming just the third Indian footballer to play abroad. The Whites currently lead the league, sitting three points ahead of second place Pune F.C.
While Dempo embodies the best of Indian football, the other side, the side that cannot be ignored when it comes to most things about India must be acknowledged. While the I-League does enjoy more domestic TV exposure and sponsorship money than ever before, the idiocy that has plagued professional sport in India remains.
It doesn’t have the name recognition of your Manchester, London and Milan clashes, but the Kolkata derby’s long history makes it one of the most anticipated fixtures of the club season. On December 9th East Bengal and Mohun Bagan met at Salt Lake Stadium, the grounds teaming with supporters of both clubs.
Debjit Lahiri details what happened next:
“A little over the 43rd minute, East Bengal shot into the lead following a composed header from Harmanjot Khabra. Seconds later Mohun Bagan’s star talisman Okolie Odafa was given marching orders for dissent and this coupled by some unnecessary sarcastic applauds from few of the East Bengal players, saw the highly charged up game, snowball into madness as the volatile Mohun Bagan crowd lost its cool and started hurling missiles into the field – one of which hit Mohun Bagan and India left back Syed Rahim Nabi.”
Following Nabi’s injury Mohun Bagan refused to take the field after halftime, citing fears of more violence. The referee insisted the match continue, forcing the Mariners to withdraw from the match. From there the All India Football Federation took over and made their cousins at FIFA proud in the process.
They decided to ban Mohun Bagan for two years, their punishment for questioning the lack of security put in place by the East Bengal officials. The federation stated the Mariners decision to cite force majeure — i.e the situation was unavoidable, they simply could not play — was not accepted.
The cost is immense. Bagan will be forced to return any financial stipends given to them by the league, and will see all of their remaining matches cancelled this season.
AIFF secretary Kushal Das explained the decision:
“From an emotional point of view the AIFF is extremely saddened at the decision. But rules are rules. They are not newly laid rules and all clubs had agreed to the rules before participating in the league. We cannot make any exceptions,” Das said, adding Mohun Bagan “still have a chance to appeal” to the AIFF.
Often, we encounter situations that can be best described as ass backwards. This is one of them. Rather than punish East Bengal for the dangerous atmosphere created by their fans, Bagan is banished. Punished for wanting to protect their players after Nabi had to be hospitalized due to bleeding so profuse that he required double surgery.
Former player Bhaichung Bhutia — who played for both teams involved — lauded the decision. “I feel sorry for the players and the fans. But football has to go on. Even without Sachin Tendulkar, cricket goes on.” Asinine. Rules are indeed rules — please can we retire that awful euphemism — but there must be room for discrepancies. Football in India will never be Cricket, Bhutia knows this. The Kolkata derby will forever be tainted thanks to the work of the AIFF. The league loses one of its vanguards for two years because of an archaic law that does not account for the physical well being of its players.
From this day on the saying ‘rules are rules’ will actually mean ‘we’re inflexible rubes who have no appreciation for context.’ It’s the truth.