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Continuing the latest series on Outside of the Boot, with a look at the biggest football fixture on the Indian calendar, East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan.
As with almost every other rivalry in football, in fact in any sport, there is a heady mixture of geographic, social, and sporting history that defines a fixture. Subhagata Bhattacharya attempts to encapsulate the emotion associated with this derby from the most emotional city in India
The City of Joy, Kolkata is a die-hard football crazy city and everyone associated with the sport would know that Football only brings joy to the people. There is distress, fear, anger on and off the pitch but when a goal is scored it can only bring more excitement and joy to the supporters.
It is a very rare sight to find Kolkata streets empty if not for crucial FIFA World Cup games, UEFA Euros and classic European club derbies or the Indian Cricket team being involved in a major tournament. But there are other occasions when you would find the whole city streets vacant, glued to their Television sets if they are not at the stadium. That is when you know two of Kolkata’s and India’s best football clubs have locked horns, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
The founders of East Bengal migrated to Calcutta (Kolkata) from modern-day Bangladesh and have historically enjoyed the support of the people who also have their origins in those parts. They are called Bangals. Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, became the club supported by the “Ghotis”, the original inhabitants of West Bengal. But as the years went on and both clubs became increasingly successful, the split became unshakable. Both the clubs recognise themselves as the most successful football club in India. And their respective trophy cabinets are a proof of their claim and it is very difficult to single-out one of the two as undisputed.
The derby is fondly known as the Kolkata Derby and more often referred to as “Boro Khela” or the big match by the people in Bengal. The match is certain to occur at least thrice every football season in India, twice in the I League (India’s first division football league) and once in the regional Calcutta League.
The first ever match between these two great rivals is believed to have ended in a goal-less draw in the Coochbehar Cup. However, it was Ghotis that took proper care of the Bangals during the replay as they hammered three past them. A few weeks later East Bengal managed to get the better of their native rivals, when they won 2-1 in the Khagendra Shield Knock-out. All of this happened in August, 1921 and this intense modern day rivalry was born.
Few would have thought of how much the rivalry would mean to people in the future. Almost every individual in Calcutta knows when it’s happening and how much it would impact daily lives. The rivalry is nearing 100 years and it does not get any better or bigger than this.
India also faces the problem of low attendances like other under-developed football nations. However, it is the least likely concern when these two teams meet in Kolkata or anywhere else in the country for that matter. In Kolkata people even try to enter the stadium premises illegally to get a glimpse of their teams play, guaranteeing an overwhelming crowd each time. Up to 100,000 patrons can be expected depending on the standings of the respective teams in the league or the cup chase, and the derby holds the record for the largest sporting attendance at 131,000 during an encounter in the 1997 and what a moment it was for the East Bengal supporters who went on to witness the first ever hat-trick scored by a player in the high-voltage clash. The player was Bhaichung Bhutia who later went on to play for Mohun Bagan and was also a captain of the Indian football team.
East Bengal versus Mohun Bagan in Kolkata is no short of excitement compared to a Manchester United versus Manchester City encounter. The speculation will begin much before the game has even started, people gathered at tea shops would outweigh their rival supporters and discuss who should play and who should not. It is no short of a festival in Kolkata when these two teams meet. And the Festival means there will be a celebration feast at the end, that is where “fish” comes into play. Depending on which team wins the prices of Ilish (Hilsa) or Chingri (Prawn) is determined. Ilish has been the traditional symbol of the East Bengal faithful while Chingri is prepared for celebration by the Mohun Bagan fans.
The rivalry between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan dates back to the 1920s, when India was still under the British rule. Mohun Bagan was formed way back in 1889 and is recognised as Asia’s first football club, much before the likes of European powerhouses Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Real Madrid. East Bengal on the other hand was founded in 1920. The supporters of either team can accept their poor performance in the championship but it will make their heart bleed if they lose to their rivals. They can be happy only if they have beaten their rivals.
This rivalry has made its way into the historical consciousness of the city, like some of world football’s oldest living rivalries its roots are no longer limited to football alone. For supporters of these clubs, a victory or a loss is a celebration of self-identity.
If you are faithful to either of these two teams or have followed Indian football, it is very difficult to simply pick the three best matches between the sides. The task becomes even more difficult considering the fact that it has been present for almost 100 years in Indian football. However, this is what I could come up with.
IFA Shield Final, 1969: The 1960s happen to be the golden period for the natives; they were simply indomitable at the time. Every team tried but eventually ended in failure. This season Mohun Bagan had already won the league when they played their fierce rival East Bengal in the IFA Shield Final. A win here would double the happiness, whereas a loss could almost take away the joy of winning the league. That is how big the derby can be for the people.
Amal Dutta who was the coach of Mohun Bagan at the time was still looking for his big break as a coach and tactician. That season he introduced the 4-2-4 formation in the Indian club football scene. Bhawani Roy and Pranab Ganguly emerged stars with their fabulous interlinking play resulted in a 3-1 victory for Mohun Bagan. The match was also significant in the sense that Mohun Bagan did not live up to the expectations in the coming years, and this was considered their last great performance for a long time.
IFA Shield Final, 1975: Since the 1969 defeat, East Bengal did not lose a single derby match to their city rivals for the next five years. And the pinnacle came in the 1975 IFA Shield Final, where the Bangals avenged their 3-1 defeat. East Bengal registered a 5-0 victory which is still a record in the derby for largest margin of defeat.
It is believed that having suffered such a heavy defeat, Mohun Bagan supporters surrounded the club tent, set fire to trees and two of the players (Subrata Bhattacharya and Prasun Banerjee) who managed to escape had to spend the night on a boat in the Ganges. On the other hand, a Mohun Bagan supporter even committed suicide after the heavy defeat.
However that was not the only life lost due to the rivalry. A few years later, 16th August 1980 is the darkest day in the history of the rivalry between these clubs. Over a dozen lives were lost on that day as the stadium broke into a stampede after two of Bagan’s players received marching orders from the referee.
Federation Cup Semi-Final, 1997: It is the most memorable Kolkata derby of all time, and there are two reasons for it. First, the official crowd tally reached a staggering 131,000 which still stands to be a record for any sport in India. And is, without a doubt, a huge number even in the world wide scenario. However, there are also rumours that believe that people may have illegally entered the stadium to watch their teams and their idols perform which would take the number further high.
And it turned out to be a match that these people would never forget. For the first time a player had scored a hat-trick since the inception of the derby. The hat-trick was scored by Bhaichung Bhutia, (retd. Captain Indian Football team) who is also one of the best players from the country. The match resulted in a 4-1 win for East Bengal.
Picking the top three matches between these teams is difficult, and similarly, picking three individual players is even more difficult. In this list I have referred to the three most impactful players from either team in recent times.
Bhaichung Bhutia: He holds the record of being the highest scorer in the Kolkata derby having notched up 19 goals. Most of his goals came as a player for East Bengal while he also switched sides to the Green and Maroons. His best performances came as a player for the Red and Yellow but his combination play with Barreto was lethal for any opposition. And not to forget, he is credited to being the first player to record a hat-trick in this fixture in its long history.
Jose Ramirez Barreto: He is the only foreigner to have scored over 200 goals in India. Yes all of those for a single club, Mohun Bagan. His loyalty to the club is no different than what Xavi, Steven Gerrard or Gigi Buffon has been for their respective clubs. He is and will always be held in high regard by the Mohun Bagan faithful for his contributions to the club. He is a man for the big occasion and his best came out in 2007 in a 4-3 win over the city rivals. That match was attended by the former President of FIFA Sepp Blatter.
Sangram Mukherjee: He has won titles with both clubs and has been one of the best goal keepers for the national team. As a goal keeper his importance is usually neglected but he has stood like a wall defending the team he plays for. His miraculous save from Sunil Chhetri’s penalty in the tie-breaker of 2008 Federation Cup semi-final for Mohun Bagan, and Samuel Omollo’s spot kick during the IFA Shield in 2000 are some of his noteworthy contributions.
This season the teams have met twice, with the first clash ending in a draw in January, and more recently on 2nd April 2016, it was East Bengal that won the match 2-1. The score-line makes it seem a much closer encounter than it actually was. East Bengal dominated play throughout the game but lost a little focus toward the end of the game. Like every derby between these two teams, a new hero was produced and the villain missed a classic opportunity to be the hero. Jeje Lalpekhlua missed an added time penalty for the Green and Maroons missing the opportunity to save the match for his team.
If the same incident had occurred a few decades ago it would have caused brawls outside the stadium and the player would have been living in fear. But that has changed, the fans have matured and so have the players. The distinctions between Bangals and Ghotis have blurred in the recent past; Bangals can support Mohun Bagan and Ghotis can support East Bengal.
Mention the world’s most popular rivalries and almost everyone is certain to turn towards Europe and some may think South America. However, this rivalry in Asia has lived for a lot more years than some of Europe’s best clubs and without a doubt deserves a place on the must-see rivalries on the list of any football connoisseur. The rivalry between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan has certainly changed over the years, but the sentiments associated are still the very same. And take it from a Bengali who has seen it up close, players will come and go, managers will come and go, but fans are here to stay, and in all senses this rivalry is here to stay in its immortal nature.