Clash of the Titans
As the clouds burst, the crowds gather. It’s an hour before the kick-off of Kolkata’s biggest sporting event and the rain keeps pouring. The pitch at the cavernous Salt Lake Stadium is now little better than a mud pit, pockmarked by spreading pools of brackish water and streaks of brown slush.
Were this a cricket match, officials would have canceled proceedings and sent fans home. But this is football in the most football-crazy city in India: over 100,000 boisterous Calcuttans fill the divided sides of the stadium, one half festooned in the maroon and green of Mohun Bagan, the other in the red and gold of East Bengal. Firecrackers and smoke bombs exploding in the stands drown out the thunder of the monsoon above.
The Kolkata derby, which most recently took place during this mid-August deluge, is an epic contest older than the Spanish civil war waged between Real Madrid and Barcelona and deeper than the glossy rivalries of the money-spinning English Premier League.
India, of course, is not a football power — at home, the sport is dwarfed by cricket, which has captured the country’s popular imagination and advertising revenue. Despite a few recent successes, the Indian national side is still a minnow in the pool of world football.
It’s ranked a woeful 145th overall by FIFA, football’s global governing body, and 24th in Asia — 13 spots below Bahrain, whose population is less than one-thousandth of India’s.
The rankings do not lie. At Kolkata’s packed derby match, the play is hapless. But it is roared on in an atmosphere of intensity and passion unparalleled anywhere else in Asia.
The enmity between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, the teams respectively of the city’s West and East Bengali populations, mirrors the Catholic-Protestant sectarianism of Glasgow’s Celtic versus Rangers. It stretches back before Indian independence and is embedded into the very fabric of Kolkata society.
Prices for prawn and hilsa, the preferred seafood of each community, fluctuate depending on the results of the clubs’ matches. An entire canon of Bengali films, plays and poems surrounds the eight-decade-old rivalry, as if all of Kolkata lives in the shadow of these football-playing Montagues and Capulets.
When FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, toured India in April with Mohammad bin Hamman, head of the Asian Football Confederation, he attended the derby fixture and was reportedly impressed by the match’s feverish atmosphere. But that didn’t make up for the shambolic management and crippling lack of infrastructure that dogs the Indian game. Hamman spoke bluntly: “Frankly speaking, they only have the history. I did not see any future.”
For most Calcuttans, the past is good enough. Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, the oldest Asian sporting club in existence, was founded in 1889 by a group of upstanding middle-class Bengalis keen to prove their mettle against the British.
They named it after one of the many Victorian villas in the densely colonial north of the city where most well-to-do Bengalis lived. From its founding, the club was consciously modern and nationalistic, eager to cast off the much-invoked colonial stereotype of the effeminate Oriental. Drinking and smoking were strictly forbidden, and young athletes, some scouted from remote villages in Bengal and other parts of the country, had their school scores monitored.
The payoff occurred a few decades later. In 1911, the Mohun Bagan football squad won the prestigious Indian Football Association Shield tournament — once the preserve of whites-only clubs — toppling the crack East Yorkshire Regiment, the best British team in India, barefoot in the final.
Boria Majumdar, India’s leading sports historian and author of Goalless, a history of Indian football, describes it as “India’s Lagaan moment” — referring to the 2001 Bollywood blockbuster about a fictional cricket-playing village that beat the ruling British at their own game.
This was real life, however, and Kolkata erupted in cele-brations, with Hindus and Muslims, poor and rich, all united in anticolonial sentiment. The glory of the moment cemented football’s place in the soul of the city.
But in keeping with the legacy of Indian independence, the aura of nationalism that surrounded Mohun Bagan soon faded with the conflicts of partition. The well-heeled Calcuttans who ran Mohun Bagan often discriminated against athletes from the eastern parts of Bengal, whose accents, culinary tastes and even modes of dress differed.
A contingent of eastern officials and players broke away from Mohun Bagan and set up the East Bengal club in 1920. The rivalry was ramped up after 1947, when the departing British divided Bengal along religious lines, its east becoming East Pakistan. Millions of Hindu refugees fled west to Kolkata.
With livelihoods and loved ones lost, many had to struggle for their place among the city’s better-established West Bengalis. “East Bengal gave them a banner to fly,” says Majumdar. “It was their ray of hope.”
Matches between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal dominated the Kolkata sports scene for decades thereafter. “It was hardly football; it was religion,” says Kishore Bhimani, a veteran journalist who did football commentary in Kolkata in the 1970s. Though the playing squads were often mixed — eight of Mohun Bagan’s 11 who famously beat the British in 1911 were from East Bengali backgrounds — supporters, for the most part, were fiercely sectarian.
On both sides, they would routinely wait three days in line to collect tickets. The names of game-winning goal scorers and clumsy defenders entered city lore year after year. Violence and riots at matches were commonplace; crowd trouble in 1980 led to the deaths of 16 spectators.
But such civic-wide obsession began to wane as television crept in during the 1980s and Indians were exposed to the wider, far superior world of sports. “The knowledge seeped in that we weren’t very good,” says Bhimani. The militant sense of east-west ethnic pride faded with the partition generation and today support for the two clubs has to do less with regional identity and more with plain club loyalty.
Imported Brazilian and Nigerian players now star for both sides and routinely swap teams. The bulk of the upper and middle classes who once passionately cared about Kolkata football sit at home with Arsenal, Manchester United or Liverpool on their minds and TVs.
Still, the city’s vast working- and lower-middle-class population remains hooked. The average fan attending the match in mid-August would have paid not more than $0.25 for the outing. It ended in a 4-3 Mohun Bagan victory, as mistake followed mistake. When the final whistle blew, a bellow the sound of fighter jets echoed around the stadium.
It may be amateurish and disorganized, but the Kolkata derby still inflames the passions of thousands. Afterward, two men in their early 20s wait to hop onto one of the many trucks that ferry fans back to Kolkata’s impoverished suburbs. Though brothers, their loyalties are divided. “Sure, it was muddy. It was ugly,” says the beaming Mohun Bagan fan as his brother dejectedly looks on. “But to us, it’s beautiful.” tiiQuigoWriteAd(755769, 1290655, 600, 240, -1);