Kolkata Derby: Still a jewel in the crown for Indian football

The age old Mohun Bagan–East Bengal rivalry have acquired a lot more gloss and budget, but it draws its lifeline from the passion of the fans only

Panoramic view of Kolkata derby (Photo: Gautam Bhattacharyya)
Panoramic view of Kolkata derby (Photo: Gautam Bhattacharyya)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

It was my first visit to a Kolkata Derby on Saturday after almost two decades, having been based out of the country for long on work. Much has changed in the ecosystem in which Mohun Bagan and East Bengal—the two Indian football giants known in different avatars operate these days—but what remains unchanged is the passion of their fans.

The rains, which came pelting down over the last quarter of the match and continued thereafter, almost worked a metaphor for the East Bengal fan—it brought them succour after a four-year drought as they carved out a 1-0 win in the season-opening Durand Cup in front of a raucous 60,000-crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium. If a 8-0 head-to-head record against their arch rivals in their last meetings made the maroon-and-green camp a bit smug, football showed it can be a great leveller.

For me, a Mohun Bagan supporter in the youth, the years in the profession—not to speak of the exposure to the best of club football (and the Fifa World Cups) on satellite channels—has long tempered the loyalties. There has been also a persistent smirk about Indian football, despite the optimistic note about it in recent times, as your next door teenager may be referring to Manchester City as ‘we’ and be on the money about the upcoming transfer window of Europe.

However, if one thinks that the cultural changes has softened the edge in this rivalry, that's a mistake—as I discovered first-hand. May be, the acrimony arising out of the ethnic divide between the ghotis and the bangals—terms reserved for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal supporters, respectively, have lost it’s significance in the current climate but no other match-up in the country’s football map is a patch on this one.

This is the clash which produced the darkest day in Kolkata football history on August 16, 1980 when lives of 16 fans were lost in a snowballing violence and stampede at the Eden Gardens. The cavernous Salt Lake Stadium, the multi-purpose venue which hosted a leg of the 2017 Under-17 Fifa World Cup was not ready then—and several of the protagonists of that match still get nightmares thinking about that day.

While there seems to be an attempt at a peaceful co-existence among the fans these days, albeit the banter, there is an extremely unpleasant offshoot—that of hatred mongering on social media which has the animosity a new avatar. There are memes, some witty and innocuous, but then there are posts which violate all forms of civility but then as football historians will tell you—the famous intra- or inter-city rivalries have been mostly like this.

A look at the rival teams' lists will reflect the qualitative change—brought about by the ballooning budgets and corporate funding—thanks to the arrival of the Indian Super League (ISL) nine years back. Emami East Bengal, in fact, turned heads in international football media when they roped in Robbie Fowler—the Liverpool legend and former England international—as their coach for the 2020–21 season but parted after just one season.

Carles Cuadrat Xiques and Juan Ferrando Fenoll, the current Emami East Bengal and Mohun Bagan Supergiant coaches, respectively, are former Spanish footballers. The players’ roster of both now boasts of five to six foreigners. Jason Cummings and Dimitri Petratos of Australia, who turned out for the Socceroos in the Qatar World Cup, came on as substitutes for the maroon-and-green on Saturday—but did not look match-ready.

Yes, the times have changed but Kolkata derby still remains the jewel in the crown in the country’s club football. All stakeholders must see to it that it retains its charm!

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Published: 13 Aug 2023, 9:24 AM