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Their football derby, our football derby

News 17 Dec 2012, 13:00 IST

The Super Sunday spectacle is being talked about much after the drama had ended.  But a parallel event that was also being enacted didn’t get the same visibility or attention. Nor did it strike the chroniclers of the epic of the many similarities between the two taking place 3000 kilometres apart. Both were teams from the same city and intense rivals, both cities had a  glorious past and are now living on those fading memories.

One a textile city, a manufacturing hub, but now fallen victim to the technology’s quirks, the other to a host of  factors, some historical, some demographic.

The Manchester derby, in the stadium bearing a Middle Eastern name, was hosting the big brother, a club that had a rich record, a tragedy, and one that characterized the nation’s spirit, true grit. Whether you scored a goal first or in the first few minutes, they would come at you with such a vengeance. You treat them with respect as they have a boss who you would definitely  not mess with.

They were one of the oldest clubs, having been formed in the later part of the nineteenth century. The other, the host, now come into new money, with a new owner who would be present in the box seat. A young man with a thin moustache, but deep pockets.

Even the stadium has been named after his fiefdom.

That has not impressed the boss who described the club as a noisy neighbour  Now this noisy one is hosting the big event. The stadium, with a 50,000-capacity, was full and it was noisy, complete with bouncers. It was the perfect setting for the spectacle, and the teams didn’t disappoint. Normally, after such a build-up the game ends in a drab fashion. The tensions, the negative tactics the teams employ, something – more often that not – goes wrong. Here, nothing of the sort happened.

But for the first 20 minutes, one would notice that the guests didn’t get to touch the ball, and in the technical area the boss was seen clenching his fist.  Against the run of play, on breakaways they scored not one but two goals and the boss jumped from his seat and did a jig. The stadium was stunned into silence.

Except for the little area where the guest supporters were boxed in.

One was so glued to the drama that the other event was totally forgotten, but more about that later. Here the manager of the host team made a substitution that, on hindsight, seemed masterly. He replaced the brooding Mario Balotelli with Carlos Tevez, a discard from the boss’s team, whom he described as a ‘headless chicken’ for his wild runs.

The Balotelli gamble hadn’t worked and he went straight through the tunnel. The frantically chasing Tevez did transform the game, and by the end of regulation time they had levelled the scores. There were to be four minutes of injury time, which is also when the boss does his magic. In the third minute, from a free kick taken by new import Robin van Persie and a nick off the toe of the his ex-teammate Samir Nasri, the ball slips through the stretched hands of goalie Joe Hart.

And the stadium explodes, with the boss and his players going into frenzy. But that is the usual stuff.

What was not so is Rio Ferdinand clutching his face from which you could see blood trickle down his nose. Someone had thrown a missile and it had caught him below the brow.

By chance, had one turned to the other derby, where a player was being carried out by his rivals, one would have seen blood present on the turf there as well. There is a replay of a Mohun Bagan player arguing and pushing the referee and he being shown the red card. Then it is all a jumble. There is no other indication of what happened, true to the local style of telecast.

Here too are the rival clubs nearly as old as the Manchester twosome and there is no love lost between them. Bagan had pedigree and looked down upon the upstarts who had come much later and didn’t seem as cultured. Here too had new money come in, but not from abroad, not from patrons of a suspect background. Strangely, both the teams are being sponsored by the same patron, a liquor magnate who is also into the airline business and the calendar business, but his planes, unlike that of the aforementioned Middle Easterner, his planes have not spent been much time airborne.

He doesn’t understandably have time to watch the match. The camera doesn’t show the crowd, but at Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata the 100,000-capacity arena is full. To find a packed stadium when the fare that is being dished out isn’t vitriolic enough to write about might sound surprising but such is the rivalry between the teams.

Bagan, like Manchester United, have a great record: the first Indian team to defeat a Brtish team in the IFA shield final in 1912. Imagine the audacity of a group of players without shoes beating an army team that is physically much stronger and taller, the East Yorkshire Regiment. The rival East Bengal,  a late starter in 1920, nearly emulated this feat when in 1930 they were to face the Royal Regiment in the IFA final, but forfeited the match heeding the boycott call by the Congress and Gandhiji.

That derby, unfortunately, had to be abandoned at half time when the Bagan players were called back stating that the place was too dangerous to risk their limbs and lives. Thus what was expected to be grudge match, one that would have risen to a memorable display of skills and grit drifted into chaos and confusion. By that time, East Bengal were leading by brilliant goal scored by Harmanjot Kabra, who was disappointed that his feat would go unrecorded, unnoticed.

The injured player, Syed Rahim Nabi, a player for all seasons, a favourite of previous Indian National Team coach Bob Houghton, who said he could play in any position, was self-effacing. One had not seen his picture in the media. He had been representing his country for such a long time, right from captaining the under-14 team to the schools teams to the under 17 and 19 teams. He had been a match-winner whenever he’d played for club and country, and to see the 25-year-old being lifted off the ground by rival team players was a poignant sight.

Bagan have been in a turbulent phase for some time and have seen over half a dozen coaches being replaced in the past couple of years. This, during the centenary year of the first Indian team’s victory over an English team in a tournament final is a story that only a people without history would have missed.

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