It was a late summer afternoon in 1925 when a bare-footed Nepal Chakraborty netted the ball, prompting immediate celebrations among a section of fans at the erstwhile Calcutta Football Ground. That day, 28th May, 1925, would go down in history books as the first encounter between East Bengal FC and Mohun Bagan Athletic Club. East Bengal won the ‘Boro’ derby (as the local expression goes for a big or important match) by a 1-0 scoreline.
This was a momentous occasion for the five-year old football club, for their opponents had voted against their promotion to the IFA First Division less than a year ago. That game also marked the inception of a local rivalry which will enter its 92nd year on 23rd January, 2016 (Saturday) when both clubs come face to face in an I-League fixture at the Yuba Bharati Krirangan, better known as the Salt Lake Stadium.
Like many football derbies across the globe, the Kolkata derby has its roots entrenched in cultural schism, socio-economic friction as well as geopolitical divide. The oldest football club in Asia, Mohun Bagan was established in 1889 as a platform of expression for the influential Bengalis through the medium of football.
The club all but created history when it won the IFA Shield in 1911 defeating East Yorkshire Regiment – a victory which in a lot of ways resounded strongly with the ongoing fight for independence. Still a unified province in the early 20th century, Bengal was drudged in a collocation of religion and politics, confounded by the diversity in cultural beliefs among the natives of West Bengal (including Calcutta) and the immigrants from the eastern province (currently Bangladesh).
It was the exclusion of star player and an immigrant Bengali, Sailesh Bose from a Jorabagan line-up against Mohun Bagan which prompted the foundation of East Bengal in 1920 — popularly known as the ‘Lal-Holud Army’ — a club which has since earned the distinction of being the only Indian football club to remain in top flight since the launch of the National Football League.
An on-pitch rivalry and mutual discord eventually boiled over to enmity, with violent clashes between two sets of fans on derby days a regular occurrence. In a country where football is still considered much inferior to cricket, the fanaticism on display among Kolkatans during an East Bengal - Mohun Bagan game is absolutely unparalleled.
Be it the stampede post a strife between the fans in the stands which took a tragic turn and killed eighteen people in 1980 or the well-known tale of Umakanto Palodhi, a Mohun Bagan fan who committed suicide after a humiliating 5-0 loss, the Kolkata derby showcases Bengalis’ all-encompassing passion for the beautiful game.
Till date, both clubs have come face to face on over 300 occasions (the official match count stands at 312), with East Bengal holding the bragging rights with 118 wins to Mohun Bagan’s 87. It is not just the city of Kolkata which has witnessed the fierce rivalry between these two sides. A multitude of spectators in the Indian capital still testify to the intense showdown in the 1978 Durand Cup final — an amalgamation of football of the highest quality and zealous support base.
In a league bereft of quality players, transfers among the two giants of Indian football are a pretty common happenstance but only a few have managed to captivate the hearts of both sets of fans, most notably Baichung Bhutia. Bhutia, the leading goalscorer in derby clashes (with nineteen goals), is also the only footballer to have ever scored a hattrick during the Kolkata derby.
Bhutia was the star of a 4-1 East Bengal win in the 1997 Federation Cup semi-final, a match which has entered record books for being the singular highest attended sporting event in India, courtesy a 1,31,000-strong crowd which graced the Salt Lake Stadium.
Traditionally, fish and football are believed to be the most crucial aspects in the day-to-day life of a Bengali. Such has been the reach of the Kolkata derby that it has transcended the realm of sports — the layman cannot fathom the importance of prawn to a Mohun Bagan fan or Hilsa to an East Bengal supporter.
A popular belief among followers of both clubs indicates the Kolkata derby attains a greater significance when either club has won a major honour in the previous season. With Mohun Bagan being the defending I-League champions, East Bengal is expected to play with an ardent approach on Saturday.
In the last two decades, emotions have mellowed down as the stature of football in the national scene has fallen; the cultural gap has been bridged with descendants of immigrant Bengalis supporting the Mariners and natives of West Bengal choosing to back the Red-and-Gold.
The rivalry might have evolved over the years, but for the fans, the outlook still remains the same. “The derby is not only a match for three points, it is about pride, prestige and honour,” Sayan Bandopadhyay, a 20-year-old East Bengal fan puts it very aptly.
For the thousands of supporters from different parts of the city as well as from other districts of Bengal who will make their way to the Salt Lake Stadium on Sunday, the Kolkata derby is not just a forgotten heritage or an escape from the toils of their daily pursuits, it is a sporting legacy which has stood the test of time.