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East Bengal join ISL: Kolkata derby moves to a bigger stage

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In a major development, Kolkata giants East Bengal have moved base to the cash-rich Indian Super League (ISL) ahead of the 2020-21 season, the league announced on Sunday, meaning that there will now be 11 teams in the new campaign. The addition of the Red and Gold Brigade now means that the coveted Kolkata derby, which has been an important fixture for decades, will now be witnessed on the highest stage in India’s football scenario.

Other teams in ISL: ATK Mohun Bagan, Mumbai City FC, Odisha FC, NorthEast United, Hyderabad FC, Bengaluru FC, Chennaiyin FC, FC Goa, Kerala Blasters and Jamshedpur FC.

The biggest pulling point of this move is the reignition of the infamous Kolkata derby, which is the biggest and oldest football rivalries in Southeast Asia. ATK FC and Mohun Bagan AC merged to form ATK Mohun Bagan FC, but retained the colours and logo of the Mariners, meaning that the Kolkata derby will now be the most anticipated match in the ISL this season. 

A staple for East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans alike, the supporters bemoaned the merger of ATK and Mohun Bagan primarily because of the loss of the derby. However, the addition of East Bengal is sure to bring in a plethora of new fans and fan groups into the ISL, further enhancing the already growing popularity of the league.

The only unlucky aspect of this merger is the ongoing global pandemic, which brought life, and all major sporting events to a stand-still. While the 2019-20 ISL final was played in Goa behind closed doors, the I-League was called off and Mohun Bagan were pronounced champions. With the new season set to be held in Goa behind closed doors, it will be sad that the first-ever ISL Kolkata derby will not accommodate any fans, who are integral to the identity of both clubs.

Moreover, much like the UEFA Europa League and the UEFA Champions League in Europe, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) organizes the AFC Cup and the AFC Champions League, which are the biggest continental competitions for Indian clubs. In the ISL, the league winners (table-toppers at the end of the group stages) are awarded the ISL League Winners Shield and a direct berth in the AFC Champions League group stages. Meanwhile, the winners of the ISL trophy qualify for the AFC Cup. 

With FC Goa topping the standings last season, they became the first club in Indian football to directly qualify for the AFC Champions League. However, with East Bengal in the mix now as well, the stakes could not be any higher for the club. With a legacy of over 100 years, East Bengal, who have been on the down-low in recent years due to financial constraints and board issues, can finally aim high.  

The ISL has come under much scrutiny for their attempts to take over the I-League which has been India’s top football league. However, there is no denying that playing in the ISL not only benefits the clubs financially, the level of competition increases while the development of players is taken care of as well. With the Red and Gold Brigade now playing in the ISL, the stakes are a lot higher, not only for the club but also for Indian football as a whole.

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