Arinjay Ghosh looks at the significance of the Kolkata Derby and why in the ever-changing landscape of Indian football, Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal is still the biggest match-up
“Dada, how much for the Golda Chingri?”
“What’s that shrimp? It’s Derby Day, which reminds me that you still wouldn’t know the feeling to be ASEAN Champions”, interrupts a man clad in Red and Gold as he signals the shopkeeper to hand him the biggest Hilsa in the market. The bemused man in Green and Maroon affirms with a proud smile, “Eighteen times national champions don’t need other championships to feel relevant.” The ensuing stare down has all the implications of “Maath’ey dekhe nebo” (War awaits on the field). In the relatively obscure world of Indian club football, the only hope of empyrean acknowledgement still remains the proverbial Boro (Big) Match.
The Kolkata Derby is the biggest match in Indian football and is contested by bitter socio-ethnic rivals, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. This game is usually party to monumental crowds and flaring tempers, both on and off the pitch, owing largely to the history and the heritage of the deep-rooted rivalry. If there is anything other than Sourav Ganguly that makes Bengal and every “Bangali” passionately defensive, it is this attrition of emotions between two stalwarts of Indian footballing tradition.
Exhibiting a fanatical devotion to football, Kolkata was the first city to embrace football in India and continues to be the emotional heartland of the beautiful game, encapsulated by the almost-century old derby match. This derby reflects, in a microcosm, the schism between geopolitical rivals much like the Old Firm Derby with Mohun Bagan, like Rangers, being the nativist and East Bengal, like Celtic, representing the immigrants. While Mohun Bagan was established in 1889 by aristocrat Bengali families of North Kolkata, their rival was born out of a disagreement between owner and manager of a local club, Jora Bagan, when Sailesh Bose was not picked for a cup final in 1920. The irked owner, a rich industrialist, then formed a new club and named it after the region he and Sailesh hailed from, East Bengal, which is modern-day Bangladesh.
The regional division between the clubs gave them an immediate identity and a fanbase. The bitterness and hatred between the two sets of fans was augmented by the political situation that existed in post-independent Bengal. The nativists, called “Ghotis”, believed they were more metropolitan, urbane and classy compared to their rivals from the east. The immigrants from (then) East Pakistan, called “Bangals”, felt they needed to be robust in order to slowly make headway into a new place and thus clashes between the two geographically divided clans became commonplace. Despite the rift, the tipping point between the two clans did not come until in 1951 when nearly two million “Bangals” immigrated to and settled down in Bengal. This influx was accompanied by great unrest and discrimination. The refugees were not welcome by the nativists who forced them to sleep on footpaths and railway stations. This extreme apathy towards each other percolated to the teams they supported and often resulted in on-field skirmishes because, back in those days, the players who excelled in the sport were mostly locals. These extremely combustible locals were not just playing for their team’s crest, they were soldiers defending the pride of their respective communities. Thus, the two teams became the flag bearers of this extremely personal yet regional battle for supremacy.
Despite the animosity between the people, this geopolitical rivalry would never have gained footballing prominence if East Bengal had not won the first ever game between the two teams. Mohun Bagan, in those days, as now was a mammoth club. Dubbed the National Club of India, it was a harbinger of the growing prominence of India’s freedom struggle having bested an English team barefoot to win the 1911 IFA Shield. Naturally they were expected to win the first meeting against a group of upstarts. When the result went in favour of the immigrants, the natives felt their supremacy was under threat and suddenly everyone knew that this was the one match they simply had to win. That one result gave a huge fillip to East Bengal and thus was born one of the greatest rivalries in world football.
With more than 400 trophies between them, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have, through the years, clashed a number of times. Though Mohun Bagan boast of a more wholesome trophy cabinet, it is East Bengal who own the head-to-head bragging rights in the 363 battles they have had on the pitch hitherto. Over the years, this marquee match has given the fans some memorable moments. Needless to say, ninety minutes and a battle later, only one half of an overpacked stadium could go home with their heads held high and respect intact. The 1960s was a period dominated by Bagan while the ’70s lay witness to East Bengal’s retaliation. In 1975, East Bengal played their greatest match in derby history when they hammered Mohun Bagan 5-0 to win the IFA Shield. The Mohun Bagan players ashamed, spent the night on a boat in the Ganges. Mohun Bagan returned East Bengal the five-goal favour in 2009 as 125,000 gathering at the Salt Lake Stadium witnessed a Green and Maroon baptism.
A Google search and the statistics of this great rivalry will be there to scrutinize, but what even the vast world of Internet fails to do justice to, is capture the emotion of this longstanding rivalry. This rivalry, for one, is not as much about the results as it is about the reactions. If one takes a cursory glance at all famous rivalries that have stood the test of time, a pattern is bound to emerge. Through the evolving eras and changing mindsets, the cornerstone of every great rivalry is one generation of bloodshed and malicious engagements that become so serious that despite the reconciliatory overtures of time, the clash between their local teams still induces the same gamut of emotions – pride, agony, elation and depression. In case of the Kolkata Derby, time and independence somewhat crystallized the geopolitical divisions, but the result never stopped mattering.
The strong aversion between the two factions can be attributed to the strong sense of belonging the people have for their starkly different cultures. Barring religion there is little common between the two sets of people. They inhabit different parts of Kolkata, they eat different delicacies and even speak differently. The Red and Gold wearing East Bengal supporters cannot stand the sight of prawns while the Mariners wearing Green and Maroon do not bring home the Hilsa on Derby Day. The supporters of the clubs are not just different but across generations, one group has grown to dislike and frown upon the choices of the other. This accounts for the strained relation between the two sets of fans. Akin to the Superclasico and the Eternal Derby, the Kolkata Derby is notorious for forgettable moments of violence. 1980 saw the darkest day of Indian football as a brawl in the stands between opposition fans due to dodgy on-field officiating claimed the life of sixteen young supporters.
For decades, a big reason for the beautiful game being alive in this nation of a billion is the off-field fable built by the fans of these two great clubs. With the lure of glamour and the promise of dollars making a welcome foray in Indian football through the Indian Super League, it is time to make the football development all-inclusive. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are institutions that have history, tradition and an astronomical support-base. It is common knowledge that money and passion, together, can revolutionize an obsolete system as one cannot replicate the madness, passion, belonging and undiluted love just through money. All the “Big Two” need now is the financial backing to take the game to the next level. Building on the foundation laid down by the blood, sweat and tears of football lovers before us, this god-sent manna of money and heritage has the potential to propel Indian football to the big league.
But until then, the one and perhaps the only Indian football match that will enchant more than a hundred thousand to the stadium will remain the Kolkata Derby. The one and perhaps the only match that will excite, unite, divide and exasperate with one kick of the ball will remain the Kolkata Derby. Why? Because to the men who committed suicide when their respective sides conceded five goals on either side of the millennium, this match is so much more than just football.
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