Football Derby is a passionate affair. According to the dictionary, A 'derby' is a match between two clubs in close geographical proximity to each other i.e. teams that are from the same city or the same part of the country. But this definition of Derby doesn’t include the other derbies that have deeper political, religious, or cultural roots. El Classico between Real Madrid & Barcelona has Political roots (Spanish and Catalan Nationalism). The greatest example being "Old Firm" derby between Celtic (Catholic) and Rangers (Protestants) is also one of the most celebrated Religious derbies.
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In the Eastern part of India, another Derby is considered to be one of the biggest and oldest rivalries in Asian Football. The rivalry of the Nativist and Immigrants – “Mohan Bagan AC”, a club of natives of the city of Kolkata (then known as Calcutta) and “East Bengal”, a club of refugees who moved to Kolkata from the region now known as Bangladesh.
The Kolkata Derby is a classic Nativist vs Immigrant rivalry. It is the biggest game in India's footballing calendar played out in the City of Joy – Kolkata. This rivalry in football divides the city not only on the derby day but also with respect to their cultural and social norms of everyday life.
The Origin and History
Kolkata is famous as the Mecca of football in India. Kolkata derby, locally known as "Boro Match" (or 'Big Match' in Bengali) is the pandemonium of Mecca. The history of Kolkata Derby is not only intertwined with the struggle of India for independence but also have a deeper socio-cultural root. The sense of belonging to a community through a sporting event is not new in history. The Kolkata Derby is a classic example of two geopolitically and culturally divided communities passionately defending the cultural ethos.
Mohun Bagan is one of Asia's oldest clubs. Inaugurated in 1889, it drew a host of players from other regions as it was based at Calcutta now known as Kolkata, the capital of British India till 1911.
In the mid-1920s, a club based on Kolkata Jora Bagan played the final of the Coochbehar Cup against Mohun Bagan. In the final Jora Bagan’s star halfback, Sailesh Bose and Nasha Sen were excluded from the starting XI. This move was resisted and protested by the club's vice-president Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri who decided that he would form his own club after the exclusion of Bose and Sen. Both Bose and Chaudhuri belonged to the eastern region of Bengal which is modern-day Bangladesh. Hence, they choose to call themselves East Bengal colored in Red, Golden, and Black. East Bengal is generally supported by people who migrated from that region.
While Mohun Bagan's supporters were from the western side of the state of Bengal. They are represented by the people existing in the western part of Bengal (known as Ghotis), while East Bengal is primarily supported by people hailing from the eastern part of the pre-independence Bengal province (known as Bengals).
The first encounter between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan was in 1925 in the Calcutta Football League (CFL) in which East Bengal tasted a 1-0 victory thanks to N. Chakravarty's solitary goal. A statement was made.
Since the two clubs first faced off, they have represented generational histories of joy, pride, shame, and folklores of immigrants and natives. The passion of “Boro Match” is unmatched. The poetry of their heroes and dismay of the fallen heroes are shared in the streets and ‘Paras’ of Kolkata.
For players, it is another derby but for the fans, it is emotional, because of the pride associated with it. From the great grandfathers to the grandsons, they are all part of the club. They feel a sense of belongingness. When Mohun Bagan scores, the civil society of Kolkata will sing the songs of their rich cultural heritage. When East Bengal wins, the tales and stories of immigrants win; who suffered enough from time to time on the course of history.
The ripple effect causes a rift not only in the city but divides the whole of Bengal into two. This is the greatest and richest footballing rivalry in Asia. The volume of the fanbase and the passion echoes the love-hate relationship. The build-up and drama before every match create an atmosphere of tension not only among the fans but also among the players. It is one of the most physical derbies in Asia. Often brawls and disputes begin in the stand and end in the streets, sometimes in violence.
The bloody history of the Kolkata derby reached its peak on 6th August 1980 taking a total of 16 young lives. It was the darkest day of Indian football. On the pitch, the referee showed Dilip Palit and Bidesh Basu red card in the second half and the gallery burst into agitation. A brawl erupted and took the lives of 16 young men.
Umakanto Palodhi, a Mohun Bagan supporter committed suicide after their 0-5 loss in 1975.
“In my next birth, I will take the revenge by becoming a Mohun Bagan footballer.” – this was his suicide note. This is the pinnacle of extreme mental pressure of the derby.
Kolkata Derby is part of FIFA’s list of classic derbies across the world. This is a match that transcends century old cultural differences.
On July 13th, 1997, India witnessed the madness of Kolkata Derby. It recorded unmatched figures of attendance in Indian sporting history. It was an all-time high as 131,000 supporters came to the Salt Lake stadium to watch the derby. But this is by no means an accurate figure as lakhs of fans stood outside the stadium and a mass entered the stadium without any official ticketing record.
The Derby has every element of a classical European or South American Derby. The feud among the coaching staff and players often making headlines to the prime-time News.
Indian football legend P.K. Banerjee was the coach of East Bengal in 1997. The late Amal Dutta, then a young and a tactical mind was in charge of Mohun Bagan. Dutta tried playing mind games with former Indian football team captain Bhaichung Bhutia, who was East Bengal’s star striker at that time. He took a jibe at Bhutia in the press conference and media interview before 1997 Federation Cup semi-final. At dinner on the eve of the match, Banerjee let Bhaichung know of Dutta’s views about him. The emotional striker took his wrath to the pitch and went on to score the derby’s first-ever hat-trick in 72 years. They went on to win the match 4-1.
This is just one classic tale of the fired-up rivalry in Bengal. There are countless feuds and history integrated with the members of the club from Political influence to the ideological conundrum of both sides.
Record against each other in all competition
East Bengal won: 127
Mohun Bagan won: 110
The two teams have faced each other 38 times in the National Football League and I-League combined. East Bengal has won 14 of them, while Mohun Bagan has snatched the bragging rights in 11 games. Honors were shared on 13 occasions.
ISL and new cloth to the Rivalry
“Without them we are nothing, without us they are nothing. Whatever the national league is—if we are not playing together, it will be like one of Kolkata’s two hearts will stop beating. We are hoping that East Bengal will find the means to join the ISL. Until that happens, we will make do with the Calcutta Football League derbies,"
-These are the words of Prasenjit Sarkar, of the Mariners’ Base Camp, the ultras fan group of Mohun Bagan.
The emergence of ISL and corporate-backed clubs have entered the big game of domestic football. The ISL or the Indian Super League since 2013 has emerged as the powerhouse of Indian Football. They brought in big money, big sponsorship, and a much larger viewer base.
Both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have suffered from sponsor troubles and in the absence of economic strength, the clubs were dependent on the fumes of passion only. But with their high rate of attendance and their humongous loyal fanbase, these two are the perfect landing place for ISL. ISL is growing to be one of the most celebrated leagues of Indian Football. But without the passion of Kolkata Derby, it is incomplete. The marketing, promotion, and overall experience of a derby will be felt all over the country in sharper resonance.
Arch-rivals Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are ready to make their ISL debut on 27th November 2020. The glitz and glamour of ISL will enhance the passion for derby. The new age football fans will get the taste of their homegrown derby rivalry. Mohun Bagan confirmed their merger with ATK (Atletico de Kolkata) and thus announced their participation in the ISL as a new entity ATK Mohun Bagan. East Bengal, which was recently acquired by Shree Cements will be joining its traditional rival as SC East Bengal or Sporting Club East Bengal.
Derby ultras is a South American and European concept. It’s a group of passionate and extreme football fans. They are often violent and many clubs have banned their ultras in the stadium. While the fan culture has been traditional for more than 100 years, over the last 6 years a growing ultras culture has brought in a new dimension to this rivalry. The ultras bring the extra spice to the game. They are not hooligans but they are more of an organized but intense supporter extending their passion in unique ways.
With the growing Ultras culture in India, it is important that they stick to the original cultural idealism. Ultras are poetic and mesmerizing in full swing but when passion overseas the judgment of the brain, ultras become violent and often cause a ruckus. The Authorities much be aware of the culture. They must provide the base and structure to the ultras as India is relatively new to this culture. Ultras will bring a more emotional and involved fan base to Indian Football, which is much needed at this point in time.
We can hope only good and memorable things from this derby.