East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan Kolkata Derby, a match made in heaven for top tier of Indian football
On 9th December 2012, the sporting world was shocked when Rio Ferdinand was struck by a coin in a Manchester derby. I had watched that match on TV. To my surprise, the next day, it was termed as a 'black day in Indian sports history' as the Indian cricket team had lost a home test series to England. The Manchester incident had caught India's attention, but a similar incident in Kolkata raised more eyebrows here.
A Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal match got abandoned after Bagan's Syed Rahim Nabi was hit by a stone. Bagan were trailing 1-0 at that time and their striker Odafa Okolie was sent off minutes before half-time. That started a chain of events, injuring 40 spectators.
I was surprised to see such passion for football in our cricket-crazy nation! I am a football fan, but back in my school days, I had no idea about the I-League or the Kolkata derby (the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal rivalry). However, it was this incident that prompted me to do some research.
The incident had attracted international attention also, and why not? The Kolkata derby is listed in FIFA's classic derbies and is one of Asia's biggest derby, always attracting big crowds. The iconic FourFourTwo magazine ranks it in the 21st position in the list of top 50 derbies around the world and highest in Asia.
The 'Bodo' match, as it is called in Bengal, can bring Kolkata to a stand-still. The passion is so strong that we have had riots in 1980, when red cards to players from both the teams irked the crowd, ultimately leading to 16 deaths and numerous injured. Umakanto Palodhi, a Bagan fan, committed suicide when the Mariners lost 5-0 in the 1975 IFA Shield final, the biggest margin of defeat till date in the Kolkata derby.
In his suicide note, Palodhi had vowed to reborn as a Mohun Bagan player to avenge the defeat. The Bagan players had to take refuge on a boat in Hoogly river for the whole night after this defeat to save themselves from their fans' wrath. Today, when we see protests in Europe for expensive tickets, there have been incidents in Bengal when fans have mortgaged their home or given their month's salary for their beloved club. This match holds the record of highest Asian attendance of 131,000 for any one-off sporting event, in the 1997 Federation Cup semi-final, in which the legendary Baichung Bhutia scored a memorable hat-trick for East Bengal to lead them to a 4-1 win.
The rivalry of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal
Mohun Bagan's earlier supporters were ghotis or western Bengalis of pre-independence era whereas EB had bangals or eastern Bengalis. The match took significance in 1945 with partition looming. After the partition, Bagan had more support in Kolkata, but with Bangladesh's liberation and the influx of refugees, both teams have now almost equal support. Mohun Bagan became a team of elites and East Bengal became the working class team. (these differences are now long gone and we have equal support of both teams irrespective of class and borders). The supporters were divided by Padma river into East and West. ( again, insignificant now).
With the new generation of fans, this hardcore divide is gone, but match-days are a totally different proposition. Both the teams even have their Ultras - the hardcore fans. Both the clubs have been on the pinnacle of Indian football for long.
Furthermore, both share the Salt Lake Stadium as their home ground in national competitions. This derby is so much embedded in a Bengali household that the result affects the sale of Hilsa fish or Prawns on a match day. We can see that the history, importance and rivalry of this match are no less than any other derby around the world.
In the 1970s, Bagan had once drawn 2-2 with Pele's New York Cosmos, and 70's is considered as East Bengal's era.
For the success of any league, passionate derby matches are almost a necessity. A match which is much more than winning or losing. Even an ardent fan of La Liga outside Spain hardly watches all the matches of their favourite team, let alone the whole league - there are exceptions, however. But El Clasico is the most watched sporting event in the world. However, this match has gained prominence in India and many other parts of the world only in last 10 years or so.
Indian football will likely see a proper league in a few years. Some reports suggest a proposal of one team per city or at least a 50 km-distance between two teams in the proposed league. This would be a foolishness as we have seen hardly any away support in the ISL (except for Kerala Blasters and NorthEast United to some extent). It will kill the excitement of a derby.
East Bengal were formed in 1921 and Mohun Bagan are the oldest top-flight club of India, formed in 1889, older than most European powerhouses like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool among others. However, in the proposed merger of I-League and ISL, the ISL is pushing for new franchise ATK to represent Kolkata. It could be detrimental to the league long-term if one chooses to ignore two teams with such big history and following.
Derbies generate the emotion which makes football the beautiful game. Having one team per city will kill that very essence.
We have in the Kolkata derby a match which has all the ingredients of becoming a blockbuster for the new age Indian league. It is amusing that there are issues regarding teams representing Kolkata, which should be an automatic choice.
Whatever the future of the first tier of Indian football, be it the ISL or a unified League, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal should be part of it, and none of them should shift their base. In the ISL, only Kerala Blasters garner full house support. Even they manage very less away support (because of the distance between teams, of course). In the Kolkata derby, we have a tailormade marketable match, a match which can help Indian football grow. A match worthy of a stage like the newly renovated Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan. Including this match will be the biggest tribute to these two flag bearers of Indian football, who have stood tall amid all the mess.