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Far away from the Maidan, the ‘IFA Shield’ comes alive in Harrow

24 April, 2021 12:18:39
Far away from the Maidan, the ‘IFA Shield’ comes alive in Harrow

Chima Ephraim Okorie. Dipendu Biswas. Once glittering stars of Kolkata’s football pantheon, now opponents in the IFA Shield, UK. You read that right, and we’re talking about an FA (Football Association) accredited community league, played in a FIFA accredited stadium, with World Cup standard balls and official jerseys of the respective clubs, presided over by FIFA accredited referees and supported by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

Except that IFA in this case stands not for Indian Football Association but Indian Fans Alliance, a group of expatriate Bengalis in the UK who have got together to celebrate the never-ending East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan saga, by playing some serious football of their own, wearing the same red-gold and green-maroon jerseys of the clubs they will remain forever loyal to. Even the teams this year have been named after various East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fan clubs.

While the 2020 edition of the tournament had to be cancelled owing to the Covid pandemic, it is back on track this year with a date set for July or August. Captaining the two sides will be Chima and Dipendu, but we leave you to figure out their respective teams. For Maidan aficionados, this shouldn’t be difficult. 

“This is perhaps the only East Bengal-Mohun Bagan tournament outside of India,” laughs Anirban Mukhopadhyay, the IT professional and diehard East Bengal loyalist whose brainchild the tournament is, and who has been a resident of the UK since 2002.

“This is perhaps the only East Bengal-Mohun Bagan tournament outside of India,” laughs Anirban Mukhopadhyay, the IT professional and diehard East Bengal loyalist whose brainchild the tournament is, and who has been a resident of the UK since 2002. “When I first thought of it in 2017, my idea was to get the Bengalis here engaged in some form of physical activity, given the high prevalence of diabetes and other lifestyle-related ailments. The other intention was to evoke the nostalgia of the Maidan.”

Well, that initial spark has now grown into a healthy fire, fed by all kinds of official approval. The stadium belongs to the Slough Town Football Club near Harrow, and the jerseys the players wear are actually the official ones approved for use by the clubs, with their official permission. As for the NHS tie-up, it reinforces the tournament’s health awareness aspect, with this year’s focus on diabetes. The tournament even has its own theme song, with singer and MP Babul Supriyo having done the honours one year. This year’s theme song has been written by Abhra Malakar, with music by upcoming Bollywood musician Sunjoy Bose, and the hunt is on for a singer.

The tournament comprises three teams each from both camps, six members to each team, with plenty of reserves warming the benches. Bhaskar Bhattacharjee, who has been a key member of the organising team for two years, says, “Each of the three teams gets it own name - the first year, we chose names of legendary players who were no longer with us, such as Ahmed Khan, Sailen Manna, Krishanu Dey, Sudip Chatterjee, Junior, and Shibdas Bhaduri. Team names for the second year were of legendary officials like Poltu Das, JC Guha, and Swapan Bal.”

Dipanjan Nandi, yet another member of the organising committee, adds, “This year, we are reaching out to various fan clubs to name the teams. The three East Bengal teams will be BADGEB, Red & Gold Warriors and Prabashee East Bengal, while for Mohun Bagan, Mariners’ Base Camp has confirmed that its name can be used.”

There will also be a face off between Covid Warriors vs Covid Beaters, or doctors vs survivors, with a tribute to the NHS added in.

Given the largely amateur nature of the participation, each half of a match lasts 10 minutes instead of 45. “Even 10 minutes of football is strenuous, so we have practise sessions to get players back into shape, given their average age and general lack of physical fitness. And we have structured the format in such a way that at no time will two East Bengal or Mohun Bagan teams clash,” says Anirban. “The toppers from both camps face off in the final.” Does Anirban himself play? “Not really, somebody needs to be on standby to deal with the fights!” 

Clearly, seriousness is not in short supply here. As if to reinforce this, Chima, who now lives in Manchester, has been in attendance every year, and even conducted a boot camp here for children in 2019. The matches themselves are so competitive and tempers run so high that on one occasion, a player actually threatened a referee with physical assault. “The referee came to me and said, remember this is an FA accredited tournament. if you can’t control your friend, if he so much as touches me, I will complain and you will be arrested as the organiser,” Anirban laughs uproariously.

Speaking of organisers, Anirban acknowledges that without plenty of support from plenty of people, he would never have been able to pull this off. The banner under which the tournament is played this year is that of Heritage Bengal Global, an all-women organisation. The seriousness is perhaps what has made the tournament so widely popular among the Bengali diaspora. So much so that now, a women’s tournament is taking shape, to be called the Eves’ IFA Shield UK. “We already have a fair number of women participants. The enthusiasm was immense from the first year itself. And because last year was a miss, everyone is really keen this year.”

The keenness is perhaps given an added edge by the social aspect of the tournament. “It isn’t only about football, it’s a family occasion where people bond over football, food, and adda. We actually serve both ilish and chingri to the fans,” says Anirban. Once again, for residents of the East Bengal-Mohun Bagan universe, the significance of ilish and chingri need not be explained. 

Speaking of organisers, Anirban acknowledges that without plenty of support from plenty of people, he would never have been able to pull this off. The banner under which the tournament is played this year is that of Heritage Bengal Global, an all-women organisation. The seriousness is perhaps what has made the tournament so widely popular among the Bengali diaspora.

And finally, what of the actual shield, that is, trophy? Here, too, there is a strong Kolkata connection. “An artisan called Kaushik Ghosh is making the trophy for us in Kumortuli. I wanted a really large trophy, nearly four-foot high, the kind you will see on TV. But it also needed to be transported easily, so the material is fibreglass,” explains Anirban. 

As the build-up begins, it would perhaps be best to end this piece with Anirban’s words. “We play the way East Bengal and Mohun Bagan used to, setting aside all confusion about sponsors, ATK, formats, all the rest of it. We try to retain the flavour of the football we grew up watching.”

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