Where have all the boys gone?

Blame it on cricket or the absence of a culture on athleticism, Bengalis are woefully dropping off Indian football's radar, and it's only getting worse

Football used to be Bengal's forte. Not any more. The Dempos and the Mahindras are running the show at the national level. And in Kolkata, outstation players are ruling the roost.

Football has been the name of the game in this part of the world ever since Mohun Bagan humbled East Yorkshire Regiment in the IFA Shield final. That was 1911.

Ninety-seven years on, as Mohun Bagan won their 28th Calcutta Football League (CFL) title in 2008, only one Bengali player figured in the list of 14 in their final round match goalkeeper Sangram Mukherjee was the odd man out.

Why is the 'Bong connection' fading fast in Kolkata football? The legendary Chuni Goswami blames it on the changed psychology of the Bengali middle-class, which doesn't encourage kids to play this sport anymore. Cricket is their joie de vivre.

"There has been a marked change in the last 10 years. Young boys are taking to cricket, not only in Kolkata but also in suburbs and small towns. The general perception is, cricket gives security. It has glamour. And Bengal and the Bengalis have a role model in Sourav Ganguly. This is the precise reason why cricket academies have been fast outnumbering football coaching centres. And football talents have no choice but to share the backstage," Goswami told The Indian Express.

"Secondly, Bengali footballers nowadays seem to have lost their appetite for success. A little bit of prominence, a permanent job through sports quota and they are easily satisfied. Football is observing a global boom and the positives have started to trickle down in our country. We are now among the Asian elites after qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup. And the cash has started to flow. But Bengal boys seem to be in a deep slumber," he lamented. Even as the I-League is well underway, the absence of Bengali dominance in the national championship is only obvious.

Mohun Bagan goalie Sangram Mukherjee takes solace from the fact that all the top goalkeepers in the country are of Bengali descent. "Subrata Paul, Sandip Nandy, Subhasish Roy Chowdhury all three national team goalkeepers have Bengali roots. Then there are others like Abhijit Mondal," he said. But again, this is an isolated lot, a rank minority of sorts.

There was a time when the state leagues of North 24-Parganas and South 24-Parganas used to be the hub of footballing talents. The likes of Subrata Bhattacharya, Manoranjan Bhattacharya, Bhaskar Ganguly and other top stars cut their teeth in competitive football in those popular tournaments. During that time, the Big Three Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting had spotters who loved to do some legwork for the sake of the game. The small clubs used to take pride in nurturing talents. There were coaches like Achyut Banerjee, who gave shape to many a dream.

Now, the big clubs are only interested in names, the smaller clubs have more faith in third-string foreigners rather than in home-grown talents, and quality coaches are at a premium.

Indian Football Association (IFA) secretary Utpal Ganguly admits that there is a lack of co-ordination between districts and the state capital as far as promoting the game is concerned.

"We have started to bridge that gap. The IFA-organised state league is a good platform for the youngsters from the districts. We have to ensure that Kolkata's football fraternity gets a chance to see those players. We are working hard to ensure that good performances don't go unnoticed. It's not possible for Kolkata's clubs to go to the districts and spot talents. The idea is to bring them here. We are also trying to promote football in schools. This is basically to target the middle-class and the upper middle-class," Ganguly told this daily.

The IFA is not doing everything wrong though. It has adopted the Sunderbans Football Academy and is sincerely trying to go to the grassroots. Problem is, they are not marketing the game properly.

Kolkata and its Bengalis still swear by football. An East Bengal-Mohun Bagan clash at Yuba Bharati Krirangan still ensures a full-house. And then again, life comes to a standstill in this football-mad city when Brazil and Argentina face off in the World Cup. The Zidanes and the Ronaldos are massive icons here.

So, it's a real paradox that the talent base is receding. That the pressure of academics is getting big sounds too lame an excuse now. Gen-X Bengalis, perhaps, are not game enough to meet the challenges that football offers.

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