Migrant clubs make football truly beautiful

Every club has a story to tell but some are extra-special because of who they represent and how they become their very identity and the riposte to all their existential questions. Football's home and hope for them.

By Abhishek Sengupta (Monday Musings)

Published: Sun 4 Aug 2019, 9:30 PM

Last updated: Sun 4 Aug 2019, 11:35 PM

So, it's August and time for yet another football season. In a couple of weeks from now, the insanity for the Arsenals, the Barcelonas, and the Chelseas (and not to forget the Manchesters, Madrids, and Milans) will take over the world, leaving stories of a Derbyshire, an East Bengal, a Fluminense, a Groningen, a Hannover unheard, sidelined, buried, forgotten and forlorn.
Their history, their legacy, their trophy cabinet, their best years, their dream teams - only for their fans to crow about and hold aloft, far from the madding crowd. Yet they play on - with or without silverware, the riches, the gloss and glam, thanks to those who truly belong to those clubs - the real fans. Now, every club has a story to tell but some are extra-special because of who they represent and how they become their very identity and the riposte to all their existential questions.
My grandfather who lived up to his eighties had lost quite a bit of his sense of sight and hearing by the time I was 13 or 14. Yet he never gave up on the progress report of East Bengal FC, his favourite football team and one of India's longest-running and most successful clubs that turns 100 next August. Reading out the last page of the newspaper aloud in fine details was a daily régime for me until his death - every win meant a boost to his never-waning 'immigrant pride' and every draw a succour for his failing health.
Fans around the world last week, including here in the UAE, unveiled a yearlong plan to celebrate the centenary of East Bengal FC that's won over 130 trophies including the country's only international club honour - the 2003 Asean Club Championship. Yet, at the end of the day, it never was as much about the football on the pitch as it is about the cultural pride and the sense of belongingness.
As someone who grew up in a typical 'East Bengal household' with fiercely proud 'immigrant' ethos gotten from our 'original home' in the erstwhile province that encompassed modern-day Bangladesh, it didn't take me long to understand that this was the club that truly represented us versus them. It was the club for those who left Dacca for Calcutta during India's partition, the club for those who needed to herald their arrival in another land. And football was the best way to do it - the way it has been around the world, across generations!
Palmeiras, Brazil's most successful football club with 14 titles, too began life as a modest 'immigrant' club for São Paulo's Italian expats. Originally founded as Palestra Italia just six years before East Bengal came about in 1920 by four young Italian immigrants, the club was more than just a team for the city's sizeable Italian community in what is the world's largest Portuguese-speaking city. Palestra Italia became Palmeiras in 1942 during World War II as Brazil, part of the Allies, cracked down on anything Axis, of which Italy under Benito Mussolini was a key member, besides Adolf Hitler's Germany and Japan. The Big Green, as they are known, today may look and sound more Brazilian than Italian but their heritage - just like their home stadium Palestra Itália Arena - is as Italian as they always were.
I have seen a similar narrative in Greece for the PAOK, the reigning Greek champions and a club founded by the expatriate Greek community of Constantinople, today's Istanbul as we know it. This after they had to flee to Thessaloniki, the club's home and incidentally, also the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern-Turkey, to escape the Greco-Turkish war that broke out during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
Today everything from their name, Pan-Thessalonian Athletic Club of Constantinopolitans (or PAOK as they are commonly abbreviated as), to their emblem - a Byzantine-style double-headed eagle with retracted wings adopted just three years after the club was formed - is a stark reminder of the people and places behind the club and its history and legacy.
But perhaps the most famous of these 'immigrant' team clubs remain Scotland's Celtic Football Club, originally set up for thousands of 'poverty-stricken, lesser-fortunate' Irish immigrants in Glasgow's East End in the late 19th century. But it got a huge support from Scotland's wider Irish immigrant community in no time and soon Celtic's green and white hoops and the Irish tricolour that rose over the stands of Celtic Park became synonymous with the Irish diaspora around the world. For many with Irish roots, including Gavin, a good Aussie friend of mine, the club became and remains their one big identity. And their pride peaked in 1967 when Celtic became the first club from the British Isles ever to win the European Cup, beating Inter Milan 2-1.
For Celtic and the diaspora, it was not just a tournament final victory and tactical win over Milan's infamous Catenaccio style of defensive play but a coming of age for a whole a community that took refuge in football. When immigrant teams won in Andorra, Australia, Chile, Peru or Sweden, it wasn't any different for the wanderers in those countries, too. Football gave all of them both home and hope and it still continues to do so!

More news from OPINION